PABLO, Mont.—“Vietnam veterans have paid their dues in many ways and continue to do so,” Tony Incashola, a Vietnam veteran and director of the Salish Pend d’Oreille culture committee, said. “Today America realizes the sacrifices of not only Vietnam veterans, but all veterans.”
Roughly 300 people filled the seats in the dining hall at the Joe McDonald Health & Athletic Center during Veteran’s Day, November 11, on the Salish-Kootenai College campus to honor all veterans but especially Vietnam veterans. E.T. “Bud” Moran, tribal chairman, served as emcee and explained that in past years veterans of World War I, World War II, and the Korean War had been honored.
“Vietnam veterans are a group that has never been rightly honored. When we came home we were spit on and had stuff thrown at us but that’s all in the past,” Moran noted. “I know people are sorry for the way they were treated but it’s still in a lot of our hearts. Now we’re going to honor Vietnam veterans.”
The reservation and families are tightly knit and have a long history of volunteering for military service as is typical of American Indian peoples. There were 336 people from this reservation alone that served during the Vietnam era and 226 of them are still alive. Many of those were in the audience on this day. Incashola said, “As the colors come by, I see the faces of those who sacrificed their lives. I see the face of my brother. I see the face of my friends and relatives. All brave people who have sacrificed their lives so we may enjoy what we have today. We must never forget what they have done for us.”
Retired Brigadier General Hal Stearns was the featured speaker for the event. Before his retirement in April 2000, after 35 years of service, he had commanded all the army guard troops in Montana, some 3,400 men and women. He began by saying, “I’m very, very honored to be here today.” He spoke of a line from the book Band of Brothers. “A little boy, standing next to his grandpa, said ‘grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ and the grandpa said ‘No, but I was in the company of heroes.’ That’s the way I feel today. I am in the company of heroes.”
General Stearns captured the attention of all as he spoke with passion and pride about the U.S. military and memories of his service and those he served with. He had listened to Sirrus radio while driving this day as it broadcast the service from Arlington National Cemetery and said he had to pull over because he had tears in his eyes. “It hit me again when the President this morning said, ‘This hallowed place is where our heroes come to rest.’ I met a Medal of Honor winner one time and he called me ‘General’ and I said, ‘you outrank me many times over.’”
Stearns always visits the monuments and memorials, “these special stops,” when he visits Washington D.C. “When I go by the Marine Memorial I think of Iwo Jima and the flag and Louis Charlo. When I’m at that Vietnam wall I look at the names of the guys I served with.”
The most gripping piece in the Pentagon for Stearns is a small picture of a tired, muddy, hollow-eyed soldier. “The caption reads, ‘What do you want soldier?’ His response always hits me between the eyes. ‘Just give me tomorrow.’ That picture says it all. It says why we’re honoring the Vietnam veterans today: the agony of war, the pain, the sacrifice, the sadness, the bravery, the nobility, the cost, the heavy burdens, the struggles and the heroism. That picture in many ways represents any soldier, marine, airman, sailor, coast guard, who has ever served.”
Following the talks, the songs of honor, and the prayers, a steak luncheon was served. During the lunch each Vietnam veteran was presented with a beautiful Pendleton blanket in red, white, and blue colors with the hope it would help protect each of them and their families. General Stearns made a point of shaking hands with each veteran and thanking him for his service.
Robert Bell, U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, was also presented the Medal of Valor from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for valorous service.
Friendship Formed on the Frontlines
Joe Weaselhead served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne in 1969-70. Weaselhead shares his gripping, story of a friendship built out of survival that lasts to this day.
“I met Ken Lennoye from East Lansing, Michigan. We met at a place called Hamburger Hill in Vietnam and became very good friends. These people were coming up the hill and I noticed him. He was having a hard time so I reached down and pulled him up.”
“We stood there and I asked how long he’d been in the country. He said ‘about three weeks.’ I’d only been in the country two or three weeks ahead of that. About 10 seconds later there was an explosion and we got hit. I had been walking point and the point man was killed just after I got off point. We hit the ground and fired. We were pretty new and didn’t know what to do. But we became fast friends.”
“We were out in a rice paddy and he fell into a stream that was pretty deep and he had about 150 pounds of stuff on him. It dragged him right down. He had a very expensive piece of equipment, a starlight that we used to see at night. At first I thought it was funny. Pretty soon I noticed he wasn’t coming back up. So I reached down as far as I could, grabbed him and pulled him back up. I pulled him on shore but he was concerned about the starlight and jumped in to get it. We didn’t find it. It was too dark and didn’t know where the enemy was so thought we’d better knock that off. That’s where I saved his life.
“Later he paid that back in another incident. He pushed me out of the way,” he paused as he remembered how it had saved his own life.
“I got transferred into another airborne unit. When I was pulling out on the chopper I could see him so I just waved to him, gave him a hand salute. That was the last time I’d seen him. But we stayed in contact over the years. He named one of his kids after me. He kept saying he’d come visit. I figured it would never happen. Then, all of a sudden, here he was. He came up September 18. I just could not believe it after 41 years. We had a good time and I made a promise I’d go see him. And I’m going to.”
Vietnam was tough and the effects are still close to the surface. He explained that he keeps a pistol on one side of his chair at home and a knife at the other side. He doesn’t know why, just feels he must. And the nightmares still persist.