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When I once was a Sailor

Written by Peter Hagerty, co-founder of Peace Fleece, April 16, 2003

During the Vietnam War, I served as deck officer on the destroyer USS Lloyd Thomas DD 764, based in Newport, Rhode Island. Along with overseeing the well being of forty highly spirited sailors, one of my duties was to ensure the operational safety of our two 5' 38 caliber guns used primarily for long distance shore support for ground troops on the coastal plain of Vietnam.

In late winter of 1969, the Lloyd Thomas received orders to assume combat ready status and proceed to the Gulf of Tonkin. Our captain requested that all division officers personally sign a document stating that the ship's ordinance equipment was in good working order and capable of withstanding the rigors of war. Upon examining the barrels of our 5' guns, I discovered several stress cracks on the insides of the barrels. These cracks potentially endangered the safety of the members of my division. My captain refused to address my concerns and when I objected, he signed the readiness reports himself. I responded the following day by reporting my captain's actions to his direct superior. Within 24 hours, I was accused of insubordination by the squadron commander and threatened with a court-marshal. I was relieved of my command and shortly thereafter taken off my ship. In September of the following year, the forward gun mount of the USS Lloyd Thomas exploded off the coast of Vietnam, killing three of my men and injuring 10 others.

The Lloyd Thomas had sailed for Vietnam as an accident waiting to happen. It sailed because one man, our captain, was terrified the war would end before he could enter the battle and earn his "Vietnam Commendation Medal", a simple ribbon necessary for his own advancement to vice admiral. There is not a week that goes by without my thinking of those days, wondering if I could have done more for my men to save them from harm's way. The lesson I take from that war is that to defend my country, I must not only be willing to die for it, I must be willing to question it when I feel it is wrong. I must stand up to my leaders when I fear they are fueling the fire of war with our youth for their own personal gain.

So now, as this new war unfolds, I occasionally join my neighbors and friends in Thompson Park or on the bridge at Kezar Falls, sometimes with a placard in my hand, sometimes with a candle. My mind is with our young soldiers, many, if not most, having joined the armed forces not expecting to fight a faceless enemy attacking them with taxi cabs and hordes of unarmed women and children. I wonder what goes through their minds at moments like that. This is war at its worst, make no mistake.

I stand on the bridges over our rivers and remember the young men and women I knew from the last big war who never lived to enjoy the beauty of our great country. I support our youth risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan by working to ensure that the sacrifices they are making will never be robbed from them by men of wealth and power thousands of miles away from the fray.