I landed in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1966 as an 18-year-old U.S. Army enlistee. Approaching the airport, the captain’s voice over the plane’s intercom announced we were coming in steep due to enemy ground fire near the landing field.
Looking out the window, colored tracers flew through the dark night sky and I knew I was in a combat zone.
That recognition coupled with the reality of oppressive humidity and heat, mortar attacks, the sounds of panicked jungle animals jutting through the trees, the special noise a helicopter makes and the monsoon rains and mud reinforced the notion that this was unlike anything I had ever experienced — and it changed my life.
During my tour of duty, I learned important, life-saving lessons. One lesson has stuck with me and has guided my public service career: Never leave anyone behind.
I was recently reminded of this lesson reading about the heroics of Medal of Honor recipient Gary Martini during the Vietnam War. “Private First Class Gary Martini, braving intense enemy fire, raced through an open field to drag a fallen comrade back to a friendly position. Noticing a second fallen Marine just 20 meters from the enemy position, Martini once again risked his life to bring the man back to safety. Upon reaching the Marine, Martini received a mortal wound, but continued to drag his comrade back to his platoon’s position, telling his men to remain under cover. As he finally struggled to pull the man to safety, Private First Class Martini fell, succumbing to his wounds.”
Pfc. Martini paid the ultimate price.
For those without military experience, never leaving anyone behind is a common thread that runs deep and binds all soldiers and veterans. That practice guides my work as a county supervisor. I know, for instance, that many of our neighbors are left behind when it comes to jobs, housing and transportation.
And that situation is no different for some of San Mateo County’s 30,000 veterans. Closing that gap for the men and women who served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa motivates me to get up every morning and work on behalf of veterans.
Nearly two years ago, I had an idea to create a San Mateo County Veterans Commission.
To bring greater focus to the issues that affect vets like mental health and homelessness. While the commission is still young, it has accomplished a great deal advocating for and identifying unmet needs. In addition, the county’s Veteran’s Services Office worked hard to reach out to vets and help them receive the benefits and services to which they are rightfully entitled.
I am also proud of having a hand at building beautiful new apartments for homeless vets on the Menlo Park VA Campus. Fifty-two formerly homeless soldiers now live in a safe environment that they can call “home.”
On Veterans Day, we honor a long line of patriots who served, fought and sometimes died for our nation. The sacrifices that our young men and women have made as they faced the horrors of war would be hard for most of us to imagine. As one Medal of Honor recipient said, “You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died.”
Today our conflicts are different but it’s clear that courage and sacrifice are still hallmarks of America’s fighting forces.
For a long time, the words duty, honor and country have been a military motto. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said: “Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”
As we celebrate Veterans Day, it’s fitting to ask how we can honor the sacrifices veterans have made.
My answer is that each of us say thank you on behalf of a grateful nation. We should recognize their sacrifices and patriotism with our steadfast support — and as a country we should give veterans all the help they need.
Our military brothers and sisters provided us protection when we and our allies needed it. Now, it’s our turn to return the favor.
Warren Slocum is a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, representing District 4.
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