Remembering what we’ve been given
Published: May 24, 2007 / Author: Claudia Writer
When Samuel Gaglio flew to war in Vietnam in 1970, he wasn’t alone. Seared on his heart was a month-old Dear John letter.
Sam was 19.
In recalling those facts, Sam, now 57, paves a way to his personal understanding of the meaning of Memorial Day.
It’s a responsibility he thinks all Americans share: not only supporting troops in a war, but supporting the families of those who don’t return — and the severely injured troops who do, for the rest of their lives if needed.
“We put ourselves in situations (where we might be killed), trusting, trusting that the people and the voice of the people — the government — would respect what we had given and take care of those left behind,” Sam says.
Sam muses on the past while sitting at a table in his office at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, where he is an assistant dean. It’s a far cry from Phan Rang Air Base, where the young airman first class was stationed for six months, then was sent to Thailand for another six-month tour of duty before returning home in 1971.
As Sam himself readily admits, life is good — and has been good to him. He came to Notre Dame in 1985 after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, which he served in for 10 years as an enlisted man and 10 as an officer.
The memory of that Dear John pops out, however, when Sam attempts to describe what troops feel when they are stationed far from home.
In 1968, the Coldwater, Mich., native was enrolled at Tri-State College but, anticipating being drafted, he chose in 1969 to enlist for a four-year stint in the Air Force. Green in the ways of the military, when asked if he would like to be assigned overseas, he said yes, thinking he could sign up to “go to Europe.” But he soon learned what he’d done.
“Once I was on the volunteer list, I was the next one going to Vietnam,” he says.
Having been trained in electronics, he worked on the ground at Phan Rang, keeping the infrared systems working so gunship pilots could see their targets in the dark. The men stationed at the base worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. Sometimes, Sam says, he volunteered to help man the guard tower at night.
Even though he was busy, in free moments, unwanted thoughts and feelings would creep in. He wasn’t the only one to get a Dear John, he says. Or to worry obsessively after receiving news from home, for instance, that a family member was ill.
“The one thing that people don’t understand,” Sam says, “and you just can’t describe, (is) how lonely it is when you are on a remote location in a war zone.”
The link to home is so important, he says, that “when you lose whatever link that is, it’s really dangerous. That’s where we had to be the most careful of all of our friends.”
Luckily, he and a good friend were overseas together, and Sam credits his support for keeping him from risky behaviors — volunteering for patrols, abusing alcohol or drugs — as a way to escape the pain of losing a “significant other.”
Sam and the other men on the ground also felt a blow when some of the pilots they’d grown close to didn’t make it back from their missions.
Sam’s Catholic faith was different then, at 19, when he would look up to God and say “Why did You let this happen?” Though he believed in God, he saw religion as a constraint when he wanted to test his boundaries.
With time, “You start to believe in God because you understand the bigger picture — that the responsibility for how things happen in life belongs to you as well as God.”
Now he’s taken on the responsibility of sharing with others what his experience has taught him.
Until recently, Sam made it a point not to talk about his experience during the Vietnam War. Not with civilians. Not with other veterans. Not even with his wife.
He broke his silence on Feb. 27 when he and three other Michiana area veterans shared their wartime stories during a panel session on campus, in connection with the Snite Museum of Art exhibition “Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina.”
He was surprised by how emotional he became and how long he spoke. “Never did that before,” Sam says.
Before then, when asked, Sam says he just left it at “Yes, I was there.” Given the anti-war sentiment at the time, he and others didn’t make a point of what they’d undergone, Sam says.
“Telling the country what you went through would not increase appreciation. … So we kept it in. … It caused the conflict to decrease over time. And (not talking about it) was accepted,” he says.
Despite his reticence, Sam does set aside time to observe Memorial Day most years. He may visit a grave site, or just spend time in contemplation.
“My most overt act (of homage to those who serve in the military) comes when I fly,” Sam says. That’s when he sees airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines in airports or on planes.
“Sorry,” he says when his eyes water. Caught off-guard by the force of his own feeling, he then laughs before picking up his train of thought.
“I remember something when I was going to Vietnam. At that time, you always had to fly in uniform. And a guy came up to me and asked if I was hungry.
“He said, ‘I want to buy you lunch. … I know what you’re doing.’
“So he bought me lunch,” Sam says in an unsteady voice.
His voice grows stronger, though, as he adds, “Every time I fly, if I see a man in uniform, that person will not buy their food. One time I bought (food) for a whole platoon. There must have been 25 of them.”
Those in the military “do not enjoy war … do not enjoy killing,” he says. The military’s strong presence “is not to conquer, not to defeat” but to maintain peace.
“It’s not a lot of fun to be in a war zone,” Sam says. “But because we do what we do, we know that those people who we love back home are still going to be able to go and watch the baseball game on Saturday night. They’re going to be able to go out to a movie. … They can travel this country freely.”
People in other countries suffer severe consequences if they voice their opinions so freely, Sam says.
When he was enlisted and still very young, Sam had mixed feelings about Memorial Day.
“I think it’s great that we honor the veterans and remember the people that made sacrifices for us.” But he also remembers having to march in parades when everybody else was having a good time.
Sam then hits on the distance he’s traveled since then.
“You know what makes me the happiest?” he says. What he likes — and it goes beyond the usual observances one day a year — is “any act that I see that supports the people who are left behind.”
When a VA (Veterans Affairs) hospital is built or an old one revamped, when VA benefits are expanded, “We are doing the right thing,” Sam says.
He is well aware that surviving family members often struggle financially and with other problems.
“Other people benefit from that (the sacrifice of their loved one’s life), but not the spouse or dependents.”
Sam tried to use the VA system after he retired. “It’s a scary, scary place,” he says. His life took a turn that brought with it a different kind of medical coverage, so he doesn’t need to depend on the VA. But he is more than willing, Sam says, to pay taxes to support military benefits he wouldn’t benefit from personally.
“This country is better off,” Sam says, “because (some members of the military) gave their lives.” In his eyes, it’s wrong to let those who suffered the loss of a loved one miss out on the American dream.
“That family group has already given enough,” Sam says.
“If you lose your spouse, money isn’t going to replace them. But, when you lose your spouse, you also lose your means to have the kind of life that is the reason your spouse gave their life in the first place. And we owe that to those people.” They may need job training or help putting their kids through college.
About those who survive war with severe disabilities, he says, “The injuries and deaths are almost equal in the responsibility of this country to take care of these people,” including their families.
This is how Sam sums up our obligation:
“We can have a great Memorial Day every year, and I think we should have.
“But that only takes care of a very small part of our responsibility (to give back).”