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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
A Veteran's Day Tribute to Demo Red: "So Many Good Men and Women"

The motto of the 30th Infantry Regiment, "San Francisco's Own," seems apt: "Our Country, not Ourselves." Here, with undue brevity, for Veterans Day, is an account of a soldier I know who embodies that motto.

Last evening, I visited Captain John F. Whitaker, US Army (Retired). He and his wife moved to my American Fork neighborhood a few years ago, after his last tour of duty in Afghanistan. I've listened to his stories before, gladly and at length. I've heard some of them repeatedly, and I'm not tired of any of them yet. You might say I knew what I was in for when I showed up at his door.

The Scene

His living room looks much as you would expect a career special operations guy's living room to look. In one corner hang memories: decorations and a beret in a frame; a photo or two of a younger John Whitaker; a couple of framed parchments bearing the Seal of the President of the United States; a certificate commending Lieutenant Whitaker of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry, "San Francisco's Own" (motto: "Our Country, not Ourselves"); and a framed pencil or charcoal drawing (I can never tell which), with a famous quotation from John Stuart Mill:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. . . . A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

There is a copy of the History Channel Magazine close at hand. On the opposite wall is a large print of a famous painting, which depicts General George Washington kneeling in prayer.

In the memory corner there is also a print of a Lynn Teter painting called "Vietnam Reflections." In it a veteran in civilian clothes leans against the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, with one hand flat against the monument. He is obviously grieving. In the polished surface of the Memorial we see reflections of soldiers in battle gear, one with his hand raised and extended, meeting the civilian's hand. (The painting itself has sold many prints; all proceeds reportedly go to veterans' groups.)

All of this I saw, while Captain Whitaker took a couple of minutes to get my almost-five-year-old sidekick situated comfortably and to find a video he would enjoy watching while the men talked.

His wife Lynne was in and out, working on some project or other, and a visitor came to the door while we talked. A local athlete, a sophomore at American Fork High School, was raising funds for an upcoming cross country trip. Within two minutes of the door opening, Whitaker and this young man were doing pushups and leg lifts together. Whitaker did more, despite being on the far side of 60 years old. Then the Captain gave the youth all the cash he had -- it wasn't much -- and didn't ask for anything in return.

The other cast member was a big, energetic, friendly, three-legged black dog named "Shelby," who is a little less obedient than the Whitaker's soldiers used to be. He's plenty fond of her anyway.


When he was 18, John Whitaker wanted to go to college. He had good grades, by his own account, "but not good enough." He "was too much of a jock." He had read in a Look magazine about "a new type of soldier," the Green Beret, and he wanted to become one, in exchange a college education, if he lived. So he told a local recruiter three essential words: infantry, paratrooper, Vietnam. The recruiter arranged it.

Not too long after that, he married Lynne in the Special Forces Chapel at Fort Bragg. It's actually called -- at least now -- the John F. Kennedy Memorial Chapel, but it's more famously linked to John Wayne. Lynne said to me, "Ask me if it was romantic." So I asked her if it was romantic.

She said, "No."

Her husband didn't contradict her, but he didn't agree, either.


After much training, Whitaker was sent to Vietnam as a Private First Class and as the Green Beret he wanted to be. He was a combat engineer, meaning that his specialty was blowing up things. He says that only special forces were prepared for combat in Vietnam, which was far different from earlier wars. They were trained to solve problems one by one, selectively, he explains, "not to kill everyone."

He picked up a nickname in Vietnam: "Demo Red." The "Red" is for the shock of red hair he used to sport, little trace of which remains. The "Demo" is for demolition, his special expertise.

Even though serving in Vietnam "messed with people's heads, because the country [meaning the US] wasn't behind it," Demo Red was about to sign up for a second six-month tour in Vietnam. His mother dissuaded him with a "scathing" letter, so he went home.

He heard that he'd be processed much more quickly, upon arriving stateside, if he already had his Class A uniform with him, so he had his mother send it. The Army turned him loose in San Jose, California, on a warm summer day, which apparently is not the ideal weather for wearing Class A's.

Smartly dressed, he found a promising location and tried to hail a cab. He tried for hours without success, dodging spittle and thrown garbage and fruit in the process. Finally, a man and his adult daughter stopped in a van. She was married to a GI and wanted to know if Whitaker knew her husband. He didn't, but they drove him home to Santa Cruz anyway.

Upon arriving home, he learned that an ungrateful nation didn't limit its disrespect to the soldiers themselves. It went after their families, too. His younger brother, who was then in high school, had been beaten up on a regular basis, whenever there was some mention of Whitaker's military service in the local media. Whitaker found out who was doing it, addressed the problem, then left Santa Cruz.

Sergeant John Pinney

I know from experience that one of the first stories you're likely to hear from Captain Whitaker is the story of Sergeant John Pinney. He was "smart as a whip" and a graduate of UC-Davis, so the Army made him a sergeant and gave him a squad of regular infantry to command in Vietnam. Competent, generous, moral, reflective, and kind, he belonged on a recruiting poster or in a Normal Rockwell painting. He cared about his men, looked after them. I have heard Whitaker speak of him on several occasions with great admiration and affection -- and with grief. If the grieving survivor in the Lynn Teter painting were Whitaker, Pinney would be one of the soldiers whose reflections he would see in the polished black granite.

The regular infantry battalion of which Sergeant Pinney's squad was a part had no demolition specialist, so Whitaker was temporarily assigned to them. They were on a mission one day, when Whitaker heard chickens acting strangely in several directions in the distance. He had some training and experience the commanding officer didn't have, and he knew that the chickens were making noises chickens don't usually make in the daytime. He also knew that the Viet Cong carried live chickens for food, and he figured that two and two pretty clearly added up to four. The enemy was all around them.

He went to the CO and quietly told him there was a problem, that the jungle was full of VC. The CO ordered him to be silent, so he went back to finding and disarming booby traps. Whitaker was with Sergeant Pinney's squad four hours later, when the VC finally attacked from every direction, with rifles, mortars, "and everything else." The Americans eventually escaped, but not without casualties. The remarkable and beloved Sergeant Pinney was hit and killed. Drenched with Pinney's blood, Whitaker carried the body to the CO, where a conversation ensued which included the words, "If you had listened."

Cold Warrior

After Vietnam came college. Whitaker emerged from Brigham Young University with an officer's commission and a degree. Along the way, he teamed up with an Air Force veteran to sponsor and support and Vietnamese family that had come to the United States.

He cross-trained for a while with the US Navy Seals, and he swam -- among other things -- well enough to be one of them. But he didn't want to be a Seal. They don't get to jump out of airplanes as much as the Green Berets, he said. By the end of his career, he had made more than 160 jumps "out of perfectly good airplanes."

He would spend some time in Central America, but many of his Cold War assignments were in Germany. The Cold War "was the worst," he says, describing the recurring experience of watching Soviet tank drills on his unit's positions, with the two sides separated only by a narrow no-man's land at the border.

Understandably, we both spoke appreciatively of Monday's 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Among the Muslims

Whitaker was called up for duty in the First Gulf War, but it was over so quickly that he never deployed overseas. Later, he would do one mission on the ground in Iraq, during an assignment spent mostly elsewhere. His last tour of duty was in Afghanistan, where he learned great respect and affection for Muslims. Most, he says, are not radicals. He found them "very honorable"; for their part, they honored and protected him and his troops.

Shortly after Whitaker's arrival in Gardez, Afghanistan, the local Afghan leader, a Mr. Abdullah (not the recent presidential candidate) summoned Whitaker. He had heard that Whitaker, who is a Mormon (or Latter-day Saint, if you prefer), was "a different Christian," and wanted him to explain. He explained -- that morning and on many subsequent visits.

He once told Abdullah that what distinguishes a person is honor, education, and willingness to serve. This prompted Abdullah to declare, "You should be a Muslim." Whitaker describes Abdullah as an honorable and intelligent man, eager to learn how better to lead his people.

Captain Whitaker yearns to return to help the Afghans in some civilian role, but doubts he will ever be able to do so.

After Afghanistan

When his tour of duty in Afghanistan was over, Captain Whitaker came home. His children told him he had changed. To be sure, his experiences among the Afghans were enough to change anyone, but it was more than that. A career spent too close to explosions was catching up to him.

In World War I they called it "shell shock." Now it's called "traumatic brain injury" or TBI. In Whitaker's case the damage undoubtedly began in Vietnam, one blast at a time. Countless explosions later, and after his Afghanistan tour, TBI forced his retirement from the Army. The prognosis now is not a pleasant one; things will get worse. One current symptom among others is that his short-term memory is increasingly poor. He and Lynne -- who, he quietly reports, loves him, cares for him, and has learned (again) how to communicate with him -- are quietly steeling themselves for the future, which promises new challenges to equal those of the past.

My thoughts for a long time have included something neither Whitaker nor his wife has ever said in my hearing. His sacrifice, which is really their sacrifice, for my freedom is already great enough; how could a nation expect more? But that sacrifice is growing still, relentlessly, and it will not cease to grow while he lives. The courage future, non-military battles will require of him and his bride yields nothing in magnitude or dignity to the physical courage which distinguished his battles under the flag of the United States.

Now, About Veteran's Day . . .

On this Veterans Day I honor Captain Whitaker's sacrifice -- past, present, and future. I likewise honor the service and sacrifice of his magnificent wife and his numerous children, all of whom are now adults. (One is now an LDS missionary and is bound for Special Forces upon his release.) The price these good people -- the soldier and the family who waited for him -- have willingly and quietly paid and will yet pay for our freedom and safety is greater than it appears to be, when you meet them at the store or on the street or at church, or when you hear Captain Whitaker at some local gathering, speaking of John Pinney and Mr. Abdullah and the others.

For what it's worth, my brief account of an accomplished soldier's life and career has offered only hints of an important reality which is more obvious through long association than I can make it here: This intelligent warrior is a man of peace. Come to think of it, all the veterans I know may be men and women of peace. I used to think this a paradox, but now it seems almost inevitable.

I asked Captain Whitaker what he would like people to remember on this Veterans Day. His answer was a plea for peace and understanding; a wish that all humanity would look beyond nationality and skin color and religion and ideology, with all the venom they seem to inspire and excuse; a hope that we would all relax our hostility long enough to consider a person's deeds, and thereby find his or her heart, and, having found it, to reach out to it with understanding.

If you ask me what I suggest you do on this and every Veterans day . . .

I suggest that you find a veteran and say thank you. Then listen for a while, if you can make the time. You may think you know the breadth and depth of that veteran's sacrifice for you and me, but you don't, and neither do I.

I suggest you find a veteran's spouse -- or mother or father or brother or sister or child -- and say thank you. We may think we know the measure of their sacrifice for our safety and our freedom, but we don't.

That veteran doesn't have to be Captain John Whitaker of American Fork, Utah, and that spouse doesn't have to be his wife, Lynne. He himself explained why.

"So Many Good Men and Women"

I told him from the beginning of our interview what I wanted to do here at the blog, and he was okay with it. I told him I would be happy to leave his name out, if he wished. But he doesn't mind me using his name; it's part of the story. Later he explained that he wants his story to be told, not so much for his own sake, but because, as he said with great emotion, it is also the story of "so many good men and women," Sergeant John Pinney among them.

Their stories deserve to be told and heard and gratefully remembered. In this respect every day should be Veterans Day -- until the day comes that we no longer value our freedom and no longer have the good sense and the humility to pause from time to time to count its cost.

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