In memorializing American troops who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom and liberty over the years, retired U.S. Army Col. Sam Lyles reflected on the experiences of his uncles from World War II, hisself from Vietnam, and his son from the current wars in the Middle East, at Monday’s memorial service at the VFW’s Oneida post.
Lyles, a 27-year Army veteran who served two combat tours in Vietnam, recalled his uncles’ return from World War II in the mid 1940s, when he was just a boy, as the first significant event of his life. He said they were “grandly welcomed” as they returned. But, as it would turn out, that would not be the case with America’s next two wars: the largely forgotten war in Korea, and the war that America didn’t have the stomach for in Vietnam.
It was the latter in which Lyles served. And like many of the American servicemen who returned from the conflict, he found an unwelcoming response awaiting him at home.
On the bus upon arriving stateside, Lyles said, “people were screaming ‘baby-killers,’ and ‘you’re not welcome here,’ and some other things that I don’t think I want to repeat in this audience.”
With televisions becoming a household item in the United States, the Vietnam War was the first American conflict to play out in homes across the nation. Lyles called it a “TV war,” and said most Americans’ visions of what was happening on the battlefield came from the evening news.
“Every night at six o’clock when the news came on, all we heard was body counts,” he said. “And then we heard from the somewhat less than truthful news media a description of what was going on. People eventually got tired of that war and I think a lot of it was because they saw so much of it on TV.”
More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. But honoring those troops was the furthest thing from the minds of some Americans.
“I really felt like at that time that my country had turned its backs on us,” Lyles said. “But I got over that and stayed in the military for 27 years.”
Sometime later, when many Vietnam veterans were invited to Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of a war monument dedicated to those who lost their lives in Vietnam, Lyles watched the ceremony on his own television.
“There were veterans walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation’s capital, as proud as they could be, and all these emotions I didn’t even realize I had started bubbling up,” Lyles said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “After that day, I felt like I was at peace with my country and my country stood behind us.”
Lyles, who has served Scott County’s 2nd District on County Commission since 2010, returned to Scott County 11 years ago with his wife Wanda, who is a native of the local community. He said America’s appreciation for its servicemen and women has come full circle.
“It makes me proud when people in airports stand up as a group of young soldiers walk by in uniform,” he said. “I appreciate when someone thanks me for my service but I tell you what I really appreciate: when someone thanks my son for his service.”
Lyles’ son is part of a generation of veterans who are carrying on the tradition of America’s armed forces. And while today’s younger generations have not known wartimes like those who grew up in World War II or even the Korea and Vietnam wars, nearly 7,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Lyles called America’s armed forces the world’s most respected military, and said it is a tradition of honor.
“Millions of Americans have died here in this country and abroad to defend our freedom and our way of life,” he said. “Even as we lose troops, more Americans step up and say, ‘I’m ready and willing to serve.’ They follow in the footsteps of generations of fine Americans.”
Now a career military man, at the age of 76, Lyles’ first experience with America’s war veterans came as his uncles returned victorious from World War II. He had several uncles who served, and said his family was not atypical of the average American family.
“My uncles had very little to say about what happened in those horrifying moments in combat environment,” he said. “But if you wanted to learn about their service you just listened to their lives. I think you probably see a lot of the same things in your family. These people served their country and they came back and served by being very productive citizens. I think that’s the type of nation we are.”
Lyles pointed out that soldiers remaining from America’s “Greatest Generation,” those who successfully fended off the greatest threat to democracy that the world has ever known, are quickly dwindling in number — and, as a result, young Americans’ opportunity to learn from those veterans is running out of time.
He said that only 500,000 World War II veterans are still living, out of the 16 million who served. And they’re dying at a rate of about 350 per day. Only one WWII veteran was in attendance at Monday’s VFW service.
“I encourage you to find these veterans and learn a little bit about them,” Lyles said.