One particularly dramatic period in his life was the basis for the hit Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers.” Another also is being made into a film, this time with Rob Reiner directing and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones portraying him onscreen.
And yet 51 years ago this month, on a battlefield in Vietnam, Joe Galloway had no idea what his future held — or even if he’d have one.
“All you’re thinking about at that point is can I survive,” Galloway said by phone from his home outside Charlotte last week. “Can I survive to get the story out?”
He did both. So well, in fact, that there may be no more appropriate choice than the 74-year-old renowned war correspondent and author to deliver the keynote speech at Friday’s Veterans Day program at the Atlanta History Center. Nor is there a more ideal setting for the event, whose theme is “Gatherround: Stories of Service:” AHC’s Veterans Park, where “sacred soil” was scattered from every site where America has fought for freedom, and visitors are literally surrounded by veterans’ self-told stories.
Galloway isn’t a veteran himself. Not officially, anyway — although the man who served four terms as a war correspondent in Vietnam and covered a half-dozen other combat operations as well, has won the Bronze Star for Valor. The only civilian to have been awarded a combat medal from the U.S. Army for actions during the Vietnam War, Galloway was recognized for rescuing wounded soldiers under fire at Ia Drang in 1965 which he covered as a young UPI reporter. That fearsome battle marked the first significant engagement between American troops and the Viet Cong and later became the subject of “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” the book Galloway wrote with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore.
Last year, a poll of 50 leading historians by Military History magazine landed it on a list of the “Ten Greatest Books Ever Written on War.” And indeed, more than almost anyone, Galloway appreciates not just the value of veterans’ service and sacrifice. He also understands the importance of their stories, for everyone involved.
“In recent years, there’s been an increased willingness by veterans to tell their stories,” said Galloway, now a special consultant to the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Project run by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “I’m absolutely delighted.”
Many Vietnam veterans “didn’t get much of a welcome home,” Galloway pointed out. That may have made them hesitant to speak up; yet the tradition of veterans keeping their stories private goes back even farther than that. Galloway’s father served in World War II, and like so many members of the Greatest Generation, remained mum on that time in his life for years afterwards.
“He wouldn’t tell me what he had seen or done until I came from from my first tour in Vietnam,” Galloway recalled. “How can you explain it to someone who hasn’t seen the same thing?”
Yet who better to perform that invaluable service than veterans themselves? That’s why Galloway is going around the country interviewing Vietnam veterans as part of that 50th anniversary commemoration project. It’s also the thinking behind the Veterans History Project, a collection of 600 oral histories of veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts that are preserved at the Atlanta History Center. Panels throughout Veterans Park feature smartphone-compatible QR codes that allow visitors to easily access videos of some of those veterans telling their stories.
Information about the Veterans History Project will be available inside the AHC atrium after Friday’s ceremony. That’s also where Galloway will sign copies of “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” which has sold more than 1.2 million copies since first being published in 1992.
In 2002, Galloway joined Knight Ridder Newspapers, where he was part of a group whose articles questioning the Bush Administration’s allegations of links between Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism in the runup to the Iraq War were initially dismissed — but ultimately proved prescient. The film industry took note and “Shock and Awe” is scheduled for release next year with Jones in the Galloway role (In 2002’s “We Were Soldiers,” he was played by Barry Pepper of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Flags of our Fathers” fame).
Galloway’s also a consultant and voiceover contributor to the 10-part Ken Burns documentary series on the Vietnam War set to premiere on PBS next fall. Still, it’s Vietnam and veterans, not Hollywood and famous actors, that remain uppermost in his mind, especially at this time of year.
“I think about (Ia Drang) every Veterans Day week … it always comes visiting,” said Galloway, who won’t write out his AHC speech beforehand, but knows exactly why he’s giving it on behalf of all of us.
“This is a chance to give those who wore the uniform and bore the danger of combat a salute and tell them, thank you,” Galloway said. “You have to, on behalf of a grateful nation that too often forgets the real cost of war.”
Veterans Day Commemoration, featuring Joe Galloway, the 116th Army Band and recognition of the 75th anniversary of the USO. Veterans Park at the Atlanta History Center. 11 a.m. ,Nov. 11. This event is free. In addition, active and retired military, veterans and up to five members of their families will receive free admission to the entire Atlanta History Center campus from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 11. 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, www.atlantahistorycenter.com