Unless you've seen it, there's no way to describe the rain during Vietnam's monsoon season. Of all the accounts I've seen, Forrest Gump's may actually be the best: "One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months. We've been through every kind of rain there is: little bitty stinging rain, and big old fat rain; rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath!"
The rainy season in south Vietnam peaks in mid-June, and so it was no accident that on June 19, 1969, a team of North Vietnamese "sappers" — elite assault troops who specialized in attacking fixed positions — launched a hellish raid on Firebase Tomahawk near the South China Sea. The base was manned by Charlie Battery of the Kentucky National Guard's 138th Artillery, "Kentucky Thunder," a battery comprised mostly of men from Bardstown.
With the pouring rain limiting visibility and muffling all other sound, the enemy had the advantage of near-complete surprise. Despite a ferocious and heroic defense, the intruders destroyed an ammunition storage area, three howitzers, nine bunkers, a mess hall, a dining tent and a maintenance building. Although I am no expert on the experiences faced by soldiers on the ground, I cannot imagine a scene more closely resembling hell on Earth.
By the time Cobra gunships were able to force the sappers into a full retreat, 10 Kentucky Guardsmen were dead, and at least 35 others were injured.
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The nighttime raid on the Kentuckians at Firebase Tomahawk was the National Guard's single bloodiest battle in Vietnam, yet most people in Kentucky today have never heard of it — and few remember anything about those who died there.
Altogether, 1,058 Kentuckians gave their lives in Vietnam, but to today's generation, they're just names carved into the black marble of The Wall in Washington, D.C., or the granite plaza of the sundial at the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort.
Nor do we know enough about the lives of the 104 Kentuckians who sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq; for them, there is not yet a memorial, or even a parade.
They deserve better — as do all those who've served our nation in uniform, from Bunker Hill to Baghdad.
Future generations must come to appreciate that these courageous men and women were living, breathing human beings, with hopes and dreams just like their own.
That's why the same volunteers who conceived and raised money for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are now embarked on an equally important project: an Education Center at The Wall that will honor the service of all American veterans and bring their sacrifice to life.
The education center will be a multimedia experience that will bring future generations closer than ever to those who gave so much. Through snapshots, displays and audio of those who died in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, visitors will reach beyond the years to appreciate the true essence of their sacrifice: laughter and love, birthday parties and graduations, families and friends — life itself.
Groundbreaking for the education center is scheduled for later this year in Washington, but despite the generosity of thousands of grateful U.S. citizens and companies, money is still desperately needed if the center is to become a reality.
Even the government of Australia has joined the effort, donating $3 million. Australia lost 521 soldiers in Vietnam, 32 in Afghanistan and two in Iraq.
Besides donations, the center needs photographs of the fallen, from each of the conflicts. Plans for the multimedia Wall of Heroes call for a moving display of snapshots of each of the 58,272 men and women whose names appear on The Wall. As of this writing, organizers have assembled photos of more than 30,000.
Sadly, only 350 of those photos are of the 1,058 Kentuckians whose names appear on The Wall, and the fund has only begun assembling photographs of the dead in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The sons and daughters of Kentucky never hesitated when the nation needed their service. We should be equally generous in honoring their memories.