Memorial Day memories: The courage of war correspondents
I never fought in the Vietnam War. I joined United Press International, a worldwide wire service, in 1975 at the end of that conflict. My heroes were UPI war correspondents — Leon Daniel, Kate Webb and Joseph L. Galloway.
Daniel was a friend. He died in 2006. Webb was a role model and later, mentor. She died in 2007. I knew Galloway, interviewed for this piece, from his legendary combat accounts.
The word “courage” is derived from the Latin “cor,” or heart. Courage takes heart, physically and morally.
Physical courage is bravery in the face of pain, hardship, death or threat of death. Moral courage is a response to opposition, oppression, disenfranchisement or personal loss.
War correspondents typically display both types of courage.
Combat reporting in America begins with Thomas Paine in the Revolutionary War. In an essay several years ago for Wired, journalist Jon Katz wrote that statues of Paine “should greet incoming journalism students” with his words “chiseled above newsroom doors and taped to laptops.”
Perhaps the most famous combat dispatch in U.S. journalism was Paine’s lead in “American Crisis, 1776”: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Galloway did four stints in Vietnam. He also covered the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In 1998, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, with “V” for valor, the only American civilian to receive the honor. He helped rescue a wounded soldier under intense enemy fire in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang at Landing Zone X-Ray in Vietnam.
You can read about that in his co-authored best-selling book, “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young.” The work was the basis for the 2002 film, “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson. Galloway was portrayed by actor Barry Pepper, also known for his role as the sharpshooter in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Galloway wrote about the Battle of la Drang in Stars and Stripes, recalling the helicopter ride to the landing zone, where an understrength battalion of the 7th Cavalry was under relentless enemy fire. “It had not escaped my notice that I was now with the 7th Cavalry, Custer’s old outfit, and chances were good that none of us would make it out of this place alive.”
Some of the passages in his piece are horrific. Here’s one about the second day of battle when an Air Force F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter dropped two cans of napalm on the command post.
The first can passed right over our heads and impacted 15 or 20 yards from us, right where two engineers were standing. Then they were screaming and dancing in the flames. I got up and ran into the burning grass and helped carry Pfc. Jimmy D. Nakayama to the aid station.”
I asked Galloway about courage.
Physical courage, he says, is the wherewithal “to stand firm in the middle of close combat; to remain determined to win in the face of a determined enemy and numerical odds.”
Moral courage for veterans “means a willingness to stand and fight for the benefits that were promised long ago when they were barely more than boys.
“All too often our country is more than willing to send its young men and women into harm’s way, only to forget them and their sacrifices when the war is over.
“It is then that the veteran must fight for what was promised: good health care for his wounds and ailments. Rights to a good education. Rights to a good roof to shelter his family.”
According to the Rand Corporation, one in five U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. “Mental health care can help, but veterans may face several obstacles. And even for those who receive care, recovery hinges on whether the treatment is high quality.”
Veterans have been struggling during the pandemic.
One year ago, because of COVID-19, the Department of Veterans Affairs suspended exams to determine eligibility, creating a backlog of 350,000 requests. In March 2021, Congress held hearings on how to address the backlog, temporarily depriving veterans of VA health care, disability benefits and other services.
Congress and the Veterans Administration must address this sorry situation.
I’ll end with a link to a poem I wrote in the voice of my friend, Leon Daniel, about the courage of my role model, Kate Webb, who visited us at Iowa State’s journalism school in 2005.
Webb went missing in Vietnam and was thought to be captured and executed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. (She was held captive by the North Vietnamese.) The charred body of a white woman was found, and everyone believed it was Webb. Her obituary actually ran in the New York Times.
Then Webb seemingly rose from the dead, entered the Saigon bureau, and wrote a lead as resounding as that of Thomas Paine: “It was like a butcher shop in Eden, beautiful but ghastly.”
This year Webb was featured in a new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” by Elizabeth Becker.
Memorial Day is May 31. Let us remember the soldiers who lost their lives in defense of America and the combat reporters who told their courageous stories so that we will never forget.
Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch (which first published this essay) and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”
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