Herman: One man’s effort to recall a major moment in the Vietnam War

Jan 31, 2018
Vietnam War veteran Patrick Reilly visits the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument on Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As one-man commemorations go, this was a moving one as Patrick Reilly moved slowly counterclockwise around the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument, stopping occasionally to fix his gaze on a particular element or reach up to touch a part of it.

Every day is a good day to pause at this monument and reflect on its profound meaning. For Reilly, 69, Wednesday was a particularly good day to do it, a day he wished more people would have marked.

It wasn’t Memorial Day or Veterans Day or any of those holidays that sometimes sadly seem to be as much about mattress sales as they are about Those Who Served.

Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Tet Offensive, a major moment in a war whose lessons we’re still struggling to learn. Reilly, then a 19-year-old Marine lance corporal, was there for the Tet Offensive and long bore the scars — physical and otherwise — of war.

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“It’s important for me to be here today because the Tet Offensive was the turning point of the war,” he said. “Eighty-five thousand enemy troops hit us at once, and it’s important to me because I came very close to dying on that day.”

He was wounded in both arms and both legs, with his right leg wound being the worst and most long-lasting, ending what he had wanted to be a career in the Marines. He wound up spending time in various locales around the world and eventually in Central Texas as an importer of items from Mexico and a cab driver. He’s also been an activist for veterans causes.

Reilly was upset Wednesday that the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive seemed to go largely unnoticed.

“It’s a national disgrace,” he said.

In this Feb. 21, 1968, file photo, a hospital corpsman holds a plasma bottle in one hand and clasps the hand of the seriously wounded U.S. Marine with the other as the wounded leatherneck is carried by comrades to an evacuation plane at the Marine base at Khe Sanh, central Vietnam. The Marine was wounded in a North Vietnamese artillery attack. Early on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, as Vietnamese celebrated the Lunar New Year, or Tet as it is known locally, Communist forces launched a wave of coordinated surprise attacks across South Vietnam. The campaign, one of the largest of the Vietnam War, led to intense fighting and heavy casualties in cities and towns across the South.(AP Photo/Rick Merron, File)

A few minutes after Reilly arrived, he was joined by friend John Burkhardt, who also was wounded in the Tet Offensive. “I received nothing for pain and was set aside to die,” said Burkhardt, 71. “I was given my last rites even though I was not a Catholic.”

Thankfully, the rites were premature.

The Tet Offensive was North Vietnam’s coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese locations. Here’s how History.com sums it up: “The offensive was an attempt to foment rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the United States to scale back its involvement in the Vietnam War. Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces managed to hold off the attacks, news coverage of the massive offensive shocked the American public and eroded support for the war effort.

“Despite heavy casualties, North Vietnam achieved a strategic victory with the Tet Offensive, as the attacks marked a turning point in the Vietnam War and the beginning of the slow, painful American withdrawal from the region.”

On Feb. 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite memorably and historically reported about the Tet Offensive: “Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout but neither did we.”

Walter Cronkite, holding microphone, and his crew use a jeep as a camera dolly during an interview with a Marine officer during the battle of Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. Photo: National Archives via The New York Times

More from The Most Trusted Man in America: “We’ve been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders — both in Vietnam and Washington — to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.”

Cronkite said it was “increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”

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Much of the nation heeded Cronkite’s words back then. But to this day, Reilly can’t abide them: “Who the hell is he? What did he know about the military? How dare he? We won that battle.”

Victory or defeat, the Tet Offensive left a lifelong impact on Reilly, “because of the years in which we meet and mate and have children were years that I was going through PTSD, drinking heavily, too dangerous in my mind to be around children, let alone have children. I needed to go and get away.”

He did, going to various places around the world, including Israel where he stepped on a mine and lost his left foot in 1973.

Good for Reilly for taking the time to remember and mark Jan. 31’s place in U.S. history. And his effort also gives me an opportunity to report another Vietnam-related landmark.

Vietnam War veteran Patrick Reilly (right) and an old friend, John Burkhardt, visit the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument on Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

I’ve told you about Hawaii resident Janna Hoehn’s amazing effort to track down photos to go with every name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It’s called the Faces Never Forgotten Program. With the help of some local folks, Hoehn in March 2017 got the last of the photos needed to go with the Central Texans memorialized on the wall.

Last month, she reported the acquisition of a photo of Donald L. Percy of Houston, meaning she now has photos of all 3,420 Texans whose names are on the wall. Now, she needs 3,697 more photos to have one to go with all 58,315 names on the wall.

It’s important to see the faces of those who served and died in Vietnam. And it’s important to hear the words of those who survived that service.

“I’ll tell you what,” Reilly said as we stood at the Vietnam monument near the Capitol, “every day is Veterans Day for me. The biggest joy I have now is people walking up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I can’t tell you how much that means to a veteran like me.”