Retired Marine General Shares Lessons from Vietnam

April 08, 2009

Retired Marine General Shares Lessons from VietnamWhen he was a young Marine in 1964, Tom Draude was eager for his upcoming tour of duty in Vietnam, anxious to join the U.S. effort to try and keep communism from spreading to South Vietnam from North Vietnam. By the end of the war, which lasted from 1957 to 1975, the young officer had a much more complicated assessment of the war.

Today, as a retired Brigadier General, Draude considers it important to pass along the lessons learned from American military mistakes and political misperceptions from that time.  “We have to understand. That’s how you learn,” Draude said during his guest lecture April 7 at Saint Leo’s main campus. (The event was taped for video teleconferencing use.)

Draude is a longtime friend of Saint Leo University, having served as a university trustee and former member of the board of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies. He is now president and chief executive officer of the Marine Corps University Foundation, a non-profit in Quantico, Va., that provides financial support for the education of active Marines. He also teaches history. 

Vet in Attendance The General’s talk at Saint Leo was both historically detailed and warm and appreciative toward veterans and active-duty armed forces members. Some in attendance, in fact, were fellow Vietnam veterans, whom Draude asked to stand and be recognized for their service.

Then he warned he didn’t expect his fellow vets would agree with all he was about to say. Draude explained that every veteran’s view of the war is influenced by the location and duration of duty. He used photographs taken during the war to aid his retelling of his three tours of duty. He also detailed key “turning points” in the prosecution of the war, which he said included inflated reports of military progress, an unclear mission, an unrelenting opponent waging a guerilla war, and finally, “the breaking point of the U.S. spirit.”

Society also made a mistake in blaming returning veterans for a war that had become so unpopular, Draude said, by treating them coldly, and shutting them out of job opportunities. The result was that many didn’t want to talk about their service, even to family and friends, he has discovered.

Americans have since learned to adopt a new attitude toward veterans, Draude said. “You may disagree with the war, but you don’t take it out on the warrior. So that’s a lesson I think we can be proud of in America, but they were tough times for those who had to go through it.”

Draude talking with a studentMany Americans still have time to heal family rifts over Vietnam, and to encourage veterans from the war to share their histories, he said, but he has seen cases where families waited too long.

“For veterans, I say, tell your families what you did. Let them know what you accomplished. I am so tired of going to a funeral for one of my Marines and having his family say, ‘Gee, we never knew the things he accomplished because he never talked about it.’ What a tragedy that is. They never knew.”

Family members can help veterans open up, Draude said. “Just ask questions ….  An easy one to start with is, ‘What’s the funniest thing that happened to you?’ Regardless of how bad things got, funny things happen to you in the military, even in combat. And that’s a good way to start. Don’t let their funeral be the time that you find out the fantastic things they did for corps and country.”