Small Wars Journal

Flags, Fortunes and Reflections

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Flags, Fortunes and Reflections

Keith Nightingale

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Many years have passed since the last uniformed American left Vietnam. Those of us that were there have many mixed feelings and emotions on the subject. There is sufficient distance that historians have time to dissect actions ranging from Presidential decisions to the amount of mixed-race babies left behind to the quality of c rations.

Our children’s schools barely mention it other than the visceral political dissents and demonstrations. We are annually treated to pictures of past participants dressed in all sorts of ersatz uniforms, facial hair and symbology taking on a variety of issues.

Our cemeteries are routinely occupied by the quickly diminishing Vietnam veterans. As the remainder gather in the warmth of their own memories or the local Legion hall, one consistent thread ties them all together-the Flag. That simply designed rectangular cloth form with its uniformly understood patterns and parts flew from when the first man entered the country to when the last man departed. It is the one enduring memory that we all carry and we all carried and cared for.

Throughout our transient history in Vietnam, within the several million soldiers, sailors, airman and marines that participated in this part of our National history, there would reside a quiet personal moment of mind that reminded that person of what home was and what it meant. It could have been a sport, a girl, a husband, family, friends, hamburgers, the farm or city and the visual and visceral aspects of each memory. These thoughts were brought back in a private rush whenever he or she happened to see the Flag.

Everyone had different very personal thoughts and visions but they all were in common with that one single vision-the Flag. It meant and it means something. It covered a place, a thing, a spirit that was temporarily forfeited for a greater spirit and service. The comfort of a neighborhood, family, friends or a special someone or someplace.

The visceral images and emotions all emerged, albeit subliminal, with a quick furtive glance of the Flag. It was singular and plural. It represented what we were and where we were at and what we did-In The World. It was a comfort we would otherwise not have had. We would never lose it. It was us. It was them-those people and things that we left behind.

Even today, when vets return to Vietnam, the Flag is known to that population-most of whom were born after the last of us left. A vet will have a small cloth flag in a book or uniform part or magazine. A local may look over his shoulder, see it and give him a prod-“Hoa Ky (US), yoi lam.” (Good) with a thumbs up and a big smile-this in a concentrated conclave of expressed communism.

Even after 50 years, our presence and larger purposes remain respected and in some cases revered. It is odd to these vets that the apparent enemy has more regard for their service than their fellow citizens did at the time.

Wherever one of our uniforms went, so did the Flag. In some cases, large and obvious such as at our embassy or major basecamps. Others much smaller and perhaps more symbolic and meaningful of spirit.

LZ X-Ray had a small Flag by its anthill CP. Small Flags were some of the first visual symbols planted at the top of Hamburger Hill-planted by soldiers who didn’t want to be there but were and cared for the outcome. The constantly bombarded Marine bases along the DMZ all showed a defiant Flag that suffered the same indignities as the Flags at McHenry and Sumpter. Had Lincoln stood in the center of Khe Sanh, he would have smiled and understood. This is why we are here. This is what we are about.

In many of the buildings surrounded and fighting as so many separated Alamo’s during Tet 68, small Flags emerged on roofs and window sills passing the message-the US is still here. We are not surrendering. You will have to take us to change this Flag. It is ours and we are keeping it.

In thousands of places and on thousands of things, the Flag waved. Whip antennas of vehicles, stickers on the side of 500 pound bombs, colored fragments coursing in the wind behind the brown water navy and every temporary command post a maneuver unit may stop for a moments time, the Flag became quickly visible-representing what each owner thought and felt in the private recesses of mind. From the early 1950’s until 1973, through the ebb and flow of enthusiasm and attitude, the Flag remained the one constant that would be wherever our uniforms stood. While it held different visions for each of us, it was the same for all of us. It was the Flag.

People may navigate their lives and places in the world in studied ignorance of the evils that may surround them. But those that serve and served know of its existence and of its penalties and costs. They intuitively understand that “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

They have carried the Flag wherever good men have done something and tried to make the world a better place.

Today, the Flag, to millions of people who are not our citizens, understand that, recognize that and pay secret homage to its meaning. Its presence transcends culture, religion, education or language to the inhabitants more than their own national symbol.

It is hope and aspiration they may only fleetingly enjoy. It truly means something. Since Vietnam, on the shoulder of every Service’s uniform, is the Flag. It carries a message far larger than the individual who bears it. It always has. It always will. Regardless of personal feelings, those that served with the Flag understood they were for some short time, part of something greater than themselves. They recognized that with the sight of the Flag.

They may have been a grunt , a gun bunny, a sailor, pilot or ammo handler-but they were there and they served the Nation and the Flag. For those several million that served “across the pond” and those whose names are chiseled in black granite could say “I served that Flag and what it means to us all. It flew proudly because I made it so.”

At some time, past, present and future, the Flag will be the last covering he or she will have on this earth and perhaps the most treasured.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.