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Christmas in the war zone – Vietnam, 1966

There are men. And there are great men.
Tyrone’s own Samuel E. Hayes, Jr. is a great man and a great American.
Politically, he served the nation and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania honorably as a Representative in the House of Representatives; Majority Leader, Majority and Minority Whip, Minority Caucus Chairman from 1972-1992; Secretary of Agriculture from 1997-2003 and Secretary of Legislative Affairs in 2002.
Hayes graduated from Tyrone High at 17 years of age and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a trooper. He served three years active duty from 1958-61 as a missleman in the Air Defense Artillery, Nike-Hercules, defending the heartland against perspective bomber raids by Russia. Geographically, his unit was assigned to protect Pittsburgh because it was surrounded by Nike-Hercules to protect the city and the steel producing capacity.
Hayes came off active duty in 1961 and enrolled at Penn State University, received his bachelor’s degree and as he was about to begin his master’s degree, the Vietnam war erupted.
Although Hayes was already discharged, he was still a young man and thought he should serve the country again because of the Vietnam conflict. He sought out the Professor of Military Science at PSU and told the professor he wanted to go back on active duty, but he wanted to get his commission as an officer.
As Hayes was working on his master’s degree at PSU, he was also working on his ROTC program, and when he completed his master’s program, he was commissioned in the U.S. Army in 1965. He became an Infantry and Intelligence Officer, being trained in both, and after training, Hayes headed to Vietnam in 1966. By the time he took his military uniform off, he was a major and came back home to Tyrone in 1967.
Tomorrow, many people will be celebrating Christmas, and those of different faiths and beliefs are celebrating their festive season around this time. With so many young men and women serving in Iraq and all over the world, not everyone is home for Christmas with their families and loved ones.
In 1966, Hayes was one of those young men. He was in the III Corps in the Gia Dinh Province of Vietnam. It was a sweltering 100 degrees in the shade and it was Vietnam’s dry season. Vietnam has two seasons, wet and dry, being located only a few degrees off the equator. Not your typical environment in December for someone from central Pennsylvania.
By this time, Hayes was married to his wife Betty Lee and the month before Christmas, Nov. 20, 1966, their first son, Samuel E. Hayes III was born. So, the first addition to the Hayes family was about to spend his first Christmas without his father, and his father of course had thoughts of his newborn son thousands of miles away.
The Christmas season is still evident in the war zone, but of course every soldier like Hayes had to have their “game face” on 24/7. There is no time off, particularly in a kind of war Vietnam was because there were not clearly defined front lines – the front was everywhere and war is fought 24/7. At a moment’s notice a soldier could be engaged.
“At Christmas, while you had your game face on and you’re going straight ahead, you obviously know that it is the season, and there is loneliness and isolation,” said Hayes. “The things that make Christmas are not everywhere around you, the festivities and most particularly your loved ones are not around.”
That isolation and loneliness Hayes speaks of is evident today in the war zone, although present communication technology makes home feel closer for troops, but it’s never the same. In Vietnam, there were no televisions in the war zone, nor emails of course; the only way to communicate was by snail mail.
Hayes said the war keeps a soldier alert, but he still knew it was Christmas and he knew he was going to be in that war zone without the festivities and without his family.
During the Vietnam war as with other wars, the military does a great job of being sensitive to the holiday season. Hayes said that for those who were able and not engaged in the immediate sense, there was a big Christmas dinner with all the fixings and the USO diligently went into the war zone putting on Christmas parties and programs for the troops. The Red Cross assisted in bringing the Christmas spirit and the chaplains were working extra hard over the holidays.
“The troops from all the branches of the military improvise too,” said Hayes. “They’ll get a likeness of a Christmas tree and decorate it with whatever they may have, and families send decorations in the mail. So you create your own Christmas. There is a physical manifestation of the season, but it’s not at all like being at home.”
Christmas in Vietnam for Hayes and many others was just another day and night because of the realities of being in a war zone. The troops had to keep their game faces on; the other side just doesn’t call time out because it’s Christmas – the war goes on.
“Does the enemy take advantage of certain moments? Yes they do, of course they do,” said Hayes. “We were always prepared for those types of surprises, to the extent that you could be prepared for a surprise. You can’t just go on a holiday, you have to have your game face on. We were always at the ready.”
But, Hayes admitted there is a bit of relaxation, not in the physical sense, but the After Action Report the day after Christmas showed less engagements compared to another day, although there were still engagements.
“You also celebrate at the ready,” said Hayes. “The guys are in their bunkers, foxholes, in base camps, you still have your perimeter defenses set up – you’re ready. But, they’re celebrating simultaneously. It’s probably the most special time during the whole year in the war zone because it’s Christmas.”
That Christmas day in 1966, Hayes was engaged during the day, so he did his celebrating the best he could that night. There were some USO activities for the troops.
“Your thoughts are totally of home,” said Hayes. “The other activity around you consumes your time, but your thoughts are of home. You might have Ann- Margret up there singing a song and that fills the time and it’s nice, but there’s no doubt your sitting there thinking about home.”
That feeling of loneliness and isolation affects everyone in a war zone, and Hayes being responsible for men as a leader in the war zone had some extra duties and concerns during the Christmas season. They were all each other’s family in Vietnam and he couldn’t let any of the troops become too despondent, especially the young soldiers.
“You have to subordinate your own situation,” said Hayes. “You don’t eliminate it, but you have to be concerned for your men. They all come from different situations and you don’t know how they are going to be at this particular time, other than they’re going to be lonely and isolated.”
He added, “There are very few people at that time saying ‘boy am I glad to be here, I’m glad I don’t have to be home for Christmas.’ You have to be concerned about your troops and keep the team together. You are very busy, so it’s not as bad if you had nothing to do. The soldiers need to be cared for at those particular moments of loneliness and isolation, and they’re lonely everyday, but Christmas is obviously a special day when you want to be with your family and loved ones.”
And that same sentiment goes to the troops overseas today, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. Those men and women need to know they are appreciated and that these are lonely days for them over the holidays. They are making a sacrifice not only in terms of their very life being at risk, but they’re also sacrificing the enjoyments of life and being with their family and friends.
“It further aggravates the isolation and loneliness if they think the folks back home have no concern, are not supportive of the mission, or making commentary that detracts from the American posture whatever it might be,” said Hayes.
The war in Vietnam, much like today’s war in Iraq, was and is often debated by many and thought of being the “wrong” war. But regardless, there are still American men and women sacrificing everything to protect this country’s freedom.
In 2008, many young men and women from our area serving in the 2/112 Infantry Battalion (Stryker), PA Army National Guard will be leaving for Iraq under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Samuel E. Hayes III, Hayes’s first son born while he was in Vietnam. Hayes’s middle son, Lee, is a major in the U.S. Army full time as an Attack Helicopter Pilot, more specifically the operations officer for his attack battalion. His youngest son, Erick was an Airborne Ranger on active duty for four years with the 75th Ranger Regiment, U.S. Army.
Those men and women that will soon leave our area should be appreciated this Christmas also, because next Christmas they will be in some advanced stage in their deployment. It sounds so simple, but in those extreme situations they will be in, those expressions of appreciation, gratitude and understanding mean a lot to the individual soldiers.
“We have an open society, so therefore we have open dialogue,” said Hayes. “We have to temper that openness with what this might be projecting to our soldiers in the field.”
He added, “Once they’re deployed we have to maintain contact with them. It’s so easy today. Email a soldier, not just someone in your immediate family, get the names of some others’ email. Send them information about back home and keep them in tune and in touch with positive things going on in the homefront.”
There are those in this world who would deny the United States the Christmas holiday. There are those who would deny Hanukkah. There are those who would deny whatever beliefs one has; religious beliefs, bill of rights beliefs, freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition, and many others. Those things are on the line every day.
They are political guarantees as long as the U.S.A. can defend them, but there are those in the world for whatever set of reasons that would deny this country of them.
“This is a real world,” said Hayes. “This isn’t fantasy land and there are challenges to liberty and freedom – real challenges to real liberty and real freedom.”
As Hayes was a vanguard in the defense of those freedoms and liberties such as Christmas, so were our troops then and our troops today. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. Each generation has taken up the uniform of our country and have done well by us, and we have to do well by them. We are in their debt.
“While we celebrate this Christmas season, remember at that very moment as we celebrate, there are young men and women out there manning lonely outposts everyday as we lead up to Christmas, Christmas eve, Christmas day, and everyday after,” said Hayes.
It’s those men and women, like Hayes, spending Christmas day in 100 degree heat in the Gia Dinh Province of Vietnam, or in Iraq and anywhere else in the world, who perhaps know what Christmas is truly about, when that feeling of isolation and loneliness sets in.