Monday, July 30, 2007

The Pat Tillman Saga: What Makes a Hero?

Well they say time loves a hero
but only time will tell
If he's real, he's a legend from heaven
If he ain't he was sent here from hell

Coming off of the news that Pat Tillman, the pro football player turned Army Ranger, may have been murdered and was not a victim of friendly fire in Afghanistan, there has been discussion anew of what constitutes a hero soldier.
Does a soldier have to perform Audie Murphy-like feats to be a hero? Does someone like Tillman (at left in photo with brother Kevin), who walked away from a multi-million dollar contract with the Phoenix Cardinals to enlist in the Army in the wake of 9/11, qualify as a hero? What about No Name soldiers who are killed with nary a shred of publicity, their passing barely noticed?
These questions are even more pungent because the White House has worked assiduously to try to insulate a public increasingly sour on the Iraq war from the realities of combat. And obscenely, the Pentagon has tried to downplay the carnage to such an extent that the service branches have been stingy in awarding medals because they call attention to those realities. (See the following post for more on this.)

I'll get to my answer as to who is a hero in a moment, but first the story of the journey that I took to get to that answer.

* * * * *
The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1982 was an enormous leap forward from the accumulated guilt over another unpopular war and a way for Americans to finally recognize the men and women who gave their lives in a fitting way. This is turn led to the construction of city and state Viet vet memorials.

Early in 1986, I was tasked by my editor at the Philadelphia Daily News to look into what the newspaper could do in connection with the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Fundraising was just getting underway for the project, which was expected to be completed by late 1987 if enough money could be raised.

In December of 1985, I had dinner with Ron Castille, a Marine Corps vet who lost a leg in Vietnam and had spent many months recovering at the Naval Hospital in South Philadelphia. Ron was a California boy, but fell in love with Philadelphia and decided to stay. He went to law school, joined the District Attorney's Office and eventually became District Attorney. Today he is a Pennsylvania State Supreme Court justice.

I told Ron that my boss and I had been kicking around the idea of putting together a special supplement that would be tucked into the Daily News on the day the memorial was dedicated. It would have biographies of all of the Philadelphians killed in the war.

Could he help us by getting one of his Viet vet organization contacts to ask the Pentagon to do a computer run of all KIAs, MIAs and POWs with Philadelphia as their place of birth or hometown of record? Ron not only provided a list, which became the template for the names on the Philadelphia wall, but he was able to access certain other information that made my subsequent efforts to obtain service records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, the central repository of military records dating back to the Revolutionary War, considerably easier.

The list contained 630 names, a dauntingly high number. But then Philadelphia more than did its part in the war.

Some 55 students from inner-city Edison High School, many draftees or young men who saw the military as their only way out of the ghetto, died in the war. This was the largest number of any public school in America.

Some 29 students from Cardinal Dougherty High School, where military recruiters were as ubiquitous as parents on graduation day, died in the war. This was the largest number of any parochial school.
In February 1986, I was assigned two researchers. While they set about trying to locate next of kin of the 630 through obituaries and telephone and city directories, I began the process of filing 630 Freedom of Information Act requests with the NPRC to obtain military records. The cooperation that I received was terrific once word of our endeavor trickled up to the headquarters commandant. It was a pattern that was to continue throughout the project. "Nos" became "yesses" once people understood what we were up to and how special and our undertaking was.

By the spring of 1987, we had compiled enough information to write about 575 bios. We also had obtained about 450 photographs.

POWs and MIAs were a special problem because the NPRS would not allow access to their records because of next-of-kin privacy concerns. With Castille's help, we opened up a line of communication with a POW-MIA group and eventually got these records.

The fundraising for the memorial continued apace, mostly through T-shirt sales, a march from the Washington memorial to Philadelphia, softball tournaments and whatnot. Dedication was set for October 27, 1987.

By October 20, we had obtained information for 627 bios through various means, but when possible through what we called "house-ends," interviews with next of kin in their homes. I believed that it was extremely important to try meet face-to-face with people. At this point we also had about 540 photos. But we were three bios short of the entire 630.

In desperation, I put classified ads in all the major East Coast newspapers. We got calls almost immediately from people who knew of the whereabout of the families of numbers 628 and 629. Then, the day before publication, I received a call from the sister of number 630. Although she lived in Philadelphia, she had somehow not been on our radar.
The finished supplement, titled The Six Hundred and Thirty, was a labor of love. This extended throughout the Daily News family.

Philadelphia is a union town and the newsroom, composing room, press room, mail room and delivery truck drivers are unionized. They have rigorous work rules regarding breaks, lunch hours and so on. Philadelphia also is a town with a deep respect for the military, and in every instance my Daily News colleagues worked tirelessly as the production end of the supplement came together. Many tears were shed by these otherwise tough professionals as they pitched in.

We were given the best compositers to assemble the pages in the composing room. Many refused to go on break until each page was just right. A buzz about the project spread throughout the building, and people would stop by the composing room and walk down the aisles where the page galleys were coming together.

"Oh, I knew him, we went to grade school together."

"God, he was a great guy."

"I put flowers on his grave every Veterans Day."

And so on and so forth.

I was in the press room at 3 a.m. on October 27. The presses started right on time but were stopped almost immediately. The foreman was not happy with the first few copies of the supplement, especially the back cover, which was in color -- a rarity in those days. The presses were adjusted and started again, but again were stopped almost immediately. The foreman refused to let a single paper go until everything -- the inking, positioning and so on -- was exactly right. This process went on for nearly an hour. (I found out later that the foreman's nephew was one of the 630.)

The mail room foreman had called in extra handlers on overtime to hustle the papers off the conveyor belts from the pressroom and onto the trucks, so even though we got a late start, the delivery trucks went out almost on time.

We added 75,000 papers to our usual 300,000 copy run in anticipation that they would sell briskly throughout the city and along the route of a parade that morning to the memorial dedication ceremonies at Penns Landing, where William Penn had landed in 1683 to establish the city.

The press run was a sellout, so we ran another 25,000 copies of the supplement to give away in the succeeding days. They were all gobbled up.

At this point we had become fully aware of what The Six Hundred and Thirty meant. For many families, it was the first time that their loved ones had gotten the attention and respect that they deserved. For others, it was an opportunity to feel pride or grieve in a way they never had. More than a few readers called or wrote me to say they had taken their Daily News home and stayed up long into the night reading every word of every bio, their tears falling onto the paper.

One man, a lawyer from suburban Villanova, told me:

"My wife and kids had never seen me cry before. At first I felt ashamed. Then I explained that I had this huge hole in my heart because I came home and my buddy didn't. They understood. Then we all cried."
We decided to do a special 5,000-copy reprint on heavy paper stock to sell at cost since the supplement was a keepsake that would be left on a coffee table or bookshelf and reread over the years. This also gave us an opportunity to correct a (very) few errors, add some information to some bios and, best of all, locate another few dozen photographs. This reprint quickly sold out, and not a year went by in the next 14 that I worked at the Daily News that we didn't get request for copies. I finally exhausted my secret stash in 1995.

One result of The Six Hundred and Thirty is that Viet vets would contact me to see if I could help them get in touch with the family of a buddy who died, often because he took a round for him. It included intervening on the behalf of vets to try to get their disability status elevated, and as recently as last year I worked (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to get the name of a B-52 bomber pilot added to the wall of the Washington memorial.

And it led to a moving interview with Kim Phuc, the little girl who is running down a highway after a napalm attack, her clothes burned off, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Nick Ut, certainly the most famous image of the war. Ms. Phuc was a surprise guest of honor at the Washington memorial on Veterans Day 1996, and I had been tipped that she would be there. It was a very special day for another reason: It was the first time that it really felt like the South Vietnamese Army vets who had been showing up at the memorial for years were being treated with the respect they too deserved.
I had a long and fulfilling career in the newspaper business. My work or work that I supervised was nominated for five Pulitzers. I got to see the world and cover some of the major news events of the last 40 years. But nothing that I did or have done since approaches The Six Hundred and Thirty simply because of all of the good it did.

* * * * *
Which finally brings me back to my answer to the question as to who is a hero: They all are, all of the men and women who fought in our nation’s wars, including Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan.

As The Six Hundred and Thirty came together, I was struck by how many of these people died not in combat, but in friendly fire incidents, whorehouse brawls, traffic accidents, and in some instances by drowning in rice paddies loaded down with heavy packs because many of these inner city kids had never learned to swim.

Each and everyone one of them died honorable deaths. And all are heroes.

1 comment: said...

A great deal of worthwhile data for me!