The following remarks were delivered by retired U.S. Army Gen. John M. “Jack” Keane, GSB ’66 on April 21, 2013, at the dedication of a new Vietnam War Memorial honoring the 23 University alumni who perished in that conflict.
Thank you Bill for your kind introduction and for all you and Terry have done to find all the Vietnam Vets and to get us all here. Please join me, everyone, in expressing our appreciation.
Father McShane, faculty and staff, families, friends and loved ones of our fallen classmates, Vietnam Vets, and those who were so generous as benefactors in rebuilding the chapel’s magnificent organ and, of course, the Fordham family.
What a truly marvelous dedication mass and ceremony: the sound, the music, the voices were all so magical, we were all uplifted by such majesty. I believe our Fordham chapel exceeded St Pat’s cathedral (and Bill Burke whispered in my ear, “I think I’m in Rome”). What a touch of class, Fr McShane.
After World War II ended, a war weary nation began an epic struggle with the aggressive and assertive Soviet Union, which turned into a rush to develop the best nuclear weapons and the best missiles and bombers to deliver them. An arms race, as part of an ideological clash, that would last for 50 years and while we, fortunately, never had a direct confrontation, we fought two wars to contain the Soviet Union and communism, one in Korea and the other in Vietnam. Both culturally different places for America, far away, and places most Americans had never heard of and most certainly had never been.
We grew up in the shadows of WWII, our fathers, uncles, and almost all our relatives participated. We saw the pictures, heard some of the stories and knew from our history classes they were part of something very important and even life defining, for some. Korea and Vietnam were much smaller wars but Vietnam was the longest and the most controversial. Most of us came from working class families in the NYC area and most were first generation college students. Fordham University was also an extension of the Catholic education experience (I told my military buddies that after 16 years of Catholic education, transition to the military was easy!!).
Fordham, the best of the Catholic universities at the time, was a great educational experience, to be sure, with a liberal arts foundation, regardless of what school you attended, to include a minor in philosophy and four years of theology. But as we all know, Fordham University was even more than that, because it was about developing character and strengthening our spiritual and moral values our families provided us. Fordham, then and now, emphasizes service–that submitting to something larger than self is part of our human contribution in the journey of life.
For 200 plus Fordham graduates, service in Vietnam seemed a normal thing to do despite the fact you could get a deferment rather easily for education, marriage, the peace corps or joining the national guard(today if you joined the national guard you are going to war). Indeed, for us it was an honor to serve, much as our father and uncles had done. Unlike our relatives most of us would serve as officers.
If you know our military history, then you are aware, as Americans, we normally get off on the wrong foot in war–true of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWII in Africa and the Pacific, and dramatically true in Korea, and Vietnam was no exception. Churchill said of us (and this is a paraphrase): “These Americans are different, they exhaust all the options and then get to the solution faster than anyone else”. America’s military is a reflection of its people, intellectually flexible, and operationally, very adaptable.
In Vietnam, we had the wrong strategy for 3 years from 1965 to 1968, fighting an unconventional war, with conventional tactics, till we changed to a counter insurgency strategy under General Abrams in 1968 and defeated the Viet Cong insurgency by 1971. However, we had evaporated American political will because of the length of the war and the apparent lack of progress (the media had given up on the war and the new progress and success was hardly reported; to this day most Americans don’t know). Henry Kissinger, now a dear friend, and the Nixon administration secretly negotiated a peace, which would allow US forces to exit Vietnam by 1973 and almost certainly guarantee a subsequent North Vietnam invasion, which took place successfully in 1975.
For those of us who fought there, while the fight at time was challenging, it was certainly not controversial. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, from the South, were the aggressors, who were intimidating, terrorizing, and killing the people of South Vietnam to force their capitulation. We saw it first hand, we were there to stop it! And in doing so, day in and day out, success was the norm and failure the exception. We found out much about ourselves, our character, how to accept our fears and at times terror, our love for our brothers who we fought with, and, yes, our values. We were proud to be Americans, having come so far, to risk so much, for others we did not know.
Twenty three of us perished. More than 10% of those who served, which is higher than almost all universities to include our service academies.
–8, Army; 6, Air Force; 5, Marines; 4, Navy –mostly pilots and ground combat soldiers –all were officers, except one sergeant and one was a Navy Chaplain, catholic priest. –the first was killed in 1964 and the last in 1973.
Their decorations for valor is most extraordinary and is a story itself, it is quite remarkable:
None of our 23 classmates wanted to die but what made them different and, if I may, special, is that they were willing to! I have been in awe of this reality all my life. Our classmates were willing to put at risk everything that they cared about in life, everything: the opportunity to have a long and full life, to have friends in their life, to be a parent, to have love in their life, to love and to be loved.
They were willing to give up all of that for what? Why did they do it? In my view, they did it out of a simple, yet, profound sense of duty, which Fordham helped to inspire. And, they did it for one another. This is true honor! And we can never take this kind of devotion for granted.
I am so proud, that our beloved Fordham University extended to our fallen classmates the respect and honor their devotion deserves.
Yes, we were soldiers once, and, young and our fallen classmates remain soldiers and young, forever. God bless them, their families and loved ones, our Vietnam Veterans and our fellow Fordham Alumni who are serving in Afghanistan(1 have seen them many times these last 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and they make us proud} and God Bless our beloved Fordham University and our magnificent country, the United States of America.