- - Monday, August 22, 2016

Until he died last week at 94, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. was a living memorial to an earlier America — where God and country were not seen as contradictions, where faith formed the bedrock of personal and national character.

Most of the tributes mentioned Gen. Vessey’s 46 years of distinguished service, rising from a private in the Minnesota National Guard to the nation’s highest military office. A soldier’s soldier, Jack Vessey received a battlefield commission during the desperate landings at Anzio in World War II — and later won the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism while rallying his heavily outnumbered troops as an artillery battalion commander in Vietnam. Heroic as they are, these benchmarks also underline the contrasts between this great soldier and the America he leaves behind.

While today we celebrate the supposed virtues of “leading from behind,” in a 2008 speech at the World War II Memorial in New Orleans, Gen. Vessey recalled much different realities. During what was supposed to be a German retreat, he witnessed an American infantry unit suddenly pinned down by machine gunfire. With all movement stopped, the unit’s division commander went forward to ask where the enemy positions were located. The lame reply: “Well sir, I don’t know precisely.” Without another word, the general, his stars on full display, calmly walked up the road until he drew fire from both German positions. Returning to the pinned-down unit, the general asked for a map and drew two small circles. “The enemy machine guns are located here and over there.” The division commander then walked away, confident that the beleaguered American unit would do its duty, whatever the cost. That story demonstrates two eternal truths: that leadership is best exercised from the front, and that real leaders never ask soldiers to assume risks not fully shared by their superiors.

Even as Gen. Vessey retired, President Reagan paid tribute to a general who understood that “soldiers are the backbone of any army. He noticed them, spoke to them, looked out for them. Jack Vessey never forgot what it was like to be just a GI.” In today’s Washington, however, the GI is quickly becoming an endangered species. Not only are we reducing the Army to its lowest levels since World War II, but the all-volunteer force means that less than 1 percent of Americans ever serve in uniform. Those percentages are even worse among our policy, congressional, media and academic elites, where prior military service is virtually unknown, the veteran’s impact upon public events minimal at best.

I had the privilege of meeting Gen. Vessey when he and other battletested veterans provided crucial inputs during debates on the future of the nation’s defense establishment. During a 1986 Army Congressional Fellowship, I worked for Rep. Bill Nichols, the leading House advocate for Pentagon reorganization. A former grunt who had been wounded in the unforgiving combat of the Huertgen Forest, Mr. Nichols especially prized Gen. Vessey’s testimony. Soldiers respect other soldiers. And since Congress wanted to improve the integrated combat power of the American military, who better to advise them than the recently retired JCS chairman? With the help of another distinguished veteran — Sen. Barry Goldwater — the Pentagon was thoroughly reformed by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Meeting the test of war just four years later, this landmark legislation has endured for a generation. The object lesson: If defense is too important to be left to generals, then it is equally unwise to trust national security to policy wonks unacquainted with self-sacrifice or untested by personal risk.

Finally, the greatest contrast between Gen. Vessey’s era and our own is also the most tragic: the steady suppression of personal faith. Even worse has been the Pentagon’s role in purging our military establishment of any form of religious expression: chaplains forbidden to pray in Jesus’ name and personal testimonies likely to result in disciplinary counseling. In contrast, Gen. Jack Vessey was a devout Christian who read his Bible daily while living his practical, down-to-earth faith.

He began his keynote speech to the National Prayer Breakfast of 1983 by addressing the gathering as “My Fellow Sinners.” He urged his listeners, including President and Mrs. Reagan, “to enlist in God’s Army” — probably a court-martial offense in today’s Army. But he concluded by reading from the eighth chapter of Paul’s magnificent letter to the Romans, “For I am absolutely convinced that neither death nor life nor anything else in God’s world has any power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Such was the extraordinary American soldier who last week entered the “Mansions of the Lord.”

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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