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Air Force gala provides lessons on leadership, revisits sins of Vietnam War era 50 years later

Left: Major Gen. (Ret.) Arnold Fields of the U.S. Marine Corps embraces Stephanie-Nellons Paige, wife of Jackson State University interim President Rod Paige, after her remarks during the 2nd annual Black Tie Gala on Saturday, April 1, inside the Old Capitol Inn. Center: Lt. Col. Timothy Henderson, commander of the Air Force ROTC at JSU is featured with Nellons-Paige and Fields. Right: Fields congratulates Henderson for JSU’s participation as a national partner in the recognition of Vietnam veterans or Vietnam-era veterans. (Photos courtesy of James Haynes)

Left: Major Gen. (Ret.) Arnold Fields of the U.S. Marine Corps embraces Stephanie-Nellons Paige, wife of Jackson State University interim President Rod Paige, after her remarks during the 2nd annual Black Tie Gala on Saturday, April 1, inside the Old Capitol Inn. Center: Lt. Col. Timothy Henderson, commander of the Air Force ROTC at JSU is featured with Nellons-Paige and Fields. Right: Fields congratulates Henderson for JSU’s participation as a national partner in the recognition of Vietnam veterans or Vietnam-era veterans. (Photos courtesy of James Haynes)

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                                                                                                                            During their second annual gala, JSU Air Force ROTC cadets were reminded of their current leadership roles and heard how the nation is trying to atone for its past sins against Vietnam veterans who were reviled and jeered when they returned from combat 50 years ago.

Major Gen. (Ret.) Arnold Fields of the U.S. Marine Corps presented sweet and bitter reflections at the celebration Saturday, April 1, inside the Old Capitol Inn on State Street.

Fields, with more than 34 years of active military service in numerous commanding roles, explained how sweet it was to rise in his career “because of the leaders I had around me.” He urged JSU cadets to strive for success and become positive examples of citizens with high character because the results of their actions “will last for the rest of your life” – even after the uniforms are no longer worn.

Quoting an exhibit in the National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps, Field said, “All it takes is all you’ve got” as he recounted the story of a brave young private who exercised leadership while serving in Vietnam. Fields told how the young Marine saved his own comrades by fatally thrusting himself onto a grenade tossed by adversaries. Fields told cadets that selfless act was the epitome of leadership.

Maj Gen (Ret) Arnold Fields - USAFHis message of bitterness is related to a war that was “not one of the highlights in the history of the nation,” said Fields, who currently serves on the staff of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration.

Military personnel returning home to the States after serving overseas were told not to wear their uniforms for fear of being ridiculed, cursed and labeled baby-killers. Sadly, too, the conflict claimed at least 58,000 American lives and left more than 75,000 permanently injured.Despite the heroics of many military service members during that period of aggression, Fields said American’s sentiments about the war took a drastic turn. “We have always had a tradition of honoring our men and women in the military, but we failed to do that as we prosecuted the Vietnam War.”

Matter of fact, military personnel returning home to the States after serving overseas were told not to wear their uniforms for fear of being ridiculed, cursed and labeled baby-killers. Sadly, too, the conflict claimed at least 58,000 American lives and left more than 75,000 permanently injured. It was noted in a video presentation that nearly 1,500 American service personnel are still listed as missing in action following the Vietnam War.

Such grim statistics did not overshadow the total conversation at the gala, however.

Like Fields, the wife of JSU interim President Rod Paige, Stephanie Nellons-Paige, spoke admirably about the men and women who today bravely wear military uniforms. She praised her own family members for their service to this country, too.

She told the audience of young cadets that “you represent excellence that has no equal. Less than ½ of 1 percent of Americans will ever wear a military uniform and serve their country. That’s understandable because not everyone can live up to your standards.”

Nellons-Paige reminded them that “much has been said about our nation’s military, whether defending our country’s freedoms, delivering humanitarian aid to a village that otherwise wouldn’t be able to feed their children or rescuing American cities ravaged by devastating effects of hurricanes.” She hailed military personnel for their compassion and service.

“Our Air Force has always been there and will always be there. You’re what all other countries emulate and those who have a reason to fear you. … You embody the core values of integrity, discipline, courage, patience and, most importantly, honor,” Nellons-Paige said.

She challenged cadets to “stay strong and don’t falter because in the end … you will come out on top.”

Vietnam Commemorative MedallionAs a result of the extraordinary sacrifice by Vietnam veterans and others who served during that era, Fields is helping lead efforts to remember their contributions after Congress passed a law in 2008. Then-President Barack Obama, who endorsed the measure, shared the following remarks in Washington, D.C., at the Vietnam War Memorial National Wall on May 28, 2012, the same year the U.S. began the commemoration:

“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam – most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.”

Today, there are approximately 7 million Vietnam veterans or Vietnam-era veterans still alive, with 1.5 million having been physically thanked. The goal is to express appreciation and honor each one who served from Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975. (Reportedly, there were 8,000 women who served in Vietnam, of whom eight perished under fire.)

The Vietnam War Commemoration staff is also reaching out to 9 million families, including contacting 2 million families whose military loved ones from that era already have died. It’s believed that the U.S. is losing nearly 400 Vietnam veterans per day.

Meanwhile, to assist in reaching the remaining veterans and family members, commemoration staffers have enlisted more than 10,600 organizations in the U.S. as partners – all approved by the secretary of defense. JSU is now one of those partnering entities.

After the urban university was declared an official partner, it immediately honored eight Vietnam veterans during a special presentation at Saturday’s gala. The former military service members were presented a plaque and a lapel pen with the following inscription: “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.”

To a climatic end of the evening, Lt. Col. Timothy Henderson, commander of the Air Force ROTC and chair of Aerospace Science at JSU, delivered a heartfelt tribute to staff and cadets during a surprised recognition of him from colleagues:

“To the cadets, you have taught me more than you realize. Although I am the commander, your struggles are my struggles; your challenges have become my challenges. When you hurt I hurt; when you laugh I laugh. We are family. All we ever want is the best for you in your life. Some of you in your life will matriculate to become Air Force officers. Some of you are going to be congressmen and congresswomen. Some of you are going to be lawyers, doctors and electrical engineers. You’re going to do great things in life. The lessons that you learn – embrace them. Embrace the struggles. Embrace the challenges. Learn from your mistakes and keep on moving. Whether you believe it or not, I do love y’all. … It’s all about affecting the communities in which we live and the people we encounter day to day.”

To his staff, he said, “We want students to know that we care. People will do almost anything and achieve what seems to be insurmountable when you care. … Everyday when I come to work I believe it’s the best place to work and that is because of the environment I work in. … I have a headstrong team of great human beings that I work with day in and day out.”