Each year during National Security Seminar week, approximately 160 members of the American citizenry join U.S. Army War College students and faculty. The goal of NSS week is to connect with the American public and discuss topics of concern on issues of national and global security, and this time last year we bore witness to just how intertwined the stories of our military and citizenry really are.
Part of the experience is a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield for the NSS guests and the opportunity to share their impressions and thoughts within seminars. One of the civilian guests in my seminar volunteered to be the first to offer his reflection. He started by handing out a dispatch that his father had written about a battlefield experience in Loc Ninh, Vietnam, in September 1968. While standing on the site of the heroic actions of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, he said, he could not help but think about the account of his dad in Vietnam. Both battles were desperate events full of chaos and uncertainty where danger and death were pervasive, and failure would have larger consequences beyond a patch of ground. By some bit of fortune (or luck), leaders in both battles made assessments and then decisions that turned the tide to save the mission and soldiers of the units.
From the across the seminar room, another guest made the surprising statement that one of his old high-school buddies, John E. Young, had been killed in a previous Loc Ninh battle, in November 1967. There was a sense of awe in the room—who would have thought this link could have been made in a classroom in Carlisle more than 40 years later? Then, from the back of the room our seminar historian, a retired colonel, asked, “What unit was your father in?” It turned out our faculty member served in the same division and in a sister unit during the battle. He knew Joseph W. Chapman, the father of our guest. It was one of those Twilight Zone moments.
The next day in seminar, the guest had something else to share. He read an email sent that morning from his father. His voice wavered and cracked as he spoke his father’s words about the leadership and professionalism of our historian. Chapman attributed his surviving Vietnam, and thus being able to father the guest in our class, to the actions long ago of our faculty member, then-Major Jerry Comello. You can imagine the depth of emotion within the seminar room.
For me, this exemplified the highest goals of NSS: to connect with the great American public. The degrees of separation are few across the generations. We are the military of the United States of America—we come from its people, past and present, and we choose to serve.
Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a professor of cultural science in the department of command, leadership and management at the U.S. Army War College.