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Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 20, 2016

On Warriors, Professional Athletes, the Super Bowl and the Siege of Khe Sanh

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During the winter season the National Football League playoffs are juxtaposed with the anniversary of the Siege of Khe Sanh. Teams from the NFL bang heads in the tournament push to the Super Bowl and I attempt to employ my anticipation for the big game to balance the Khe Sanh Siege depression that often presents its ugly face.

I have watched most of the Super Bowls and in my younger years, Super Bowl Sunday may have been the most important day of the year to me.

Now it’s lost a lot of its sheen, but when I see news reports about the Steelers and the Cowboys and the Packers and the Chiefs, my memories riffle back through the years to the first Super Bowl.

I was not a Green Bay Packer fan back in the 1960s, mostly because I tend to favor underdogs and I was tired of them winning again and again and again.

And so when one of my fellow Marines suggested we figure out where to watch the Super Bowl, I wasn’t particularly interested. Not being a fan of the Packers and not giving the Kansas City Chiefs much of a chance to beat them, I probably said something like, “Who cares?”

I was in Infantry Training Regiment, getting whipped into shape for combat in Vietnam. Stationed at Camp San Onofre at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, we were near the end of our training and he—his name, I think, was Rick Schaan—wanted to get away from the Quonset huts and the grinder and find something else to do. He was a diehard Packer fan, to boot.

Anyway, having nothing better to do and loving football, I said, “Okay. Sure.”

We hitched a ride down to an enlisted man’s club sitting just south of San Clemente Beach, and we sat in a bar and watched Green Bay whip Kansas City.

View of the Pacific Ocean from the old Enlisted Men's Club at the beach on Camp Pendleton. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

View of the Pacific Ocean from the old Enlisted Men’s Club at the beach on Camp Pendleton where Rick Schaan and Ken Rodgers watched Super Bowl I. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Not long after, we were off to Vietnam, Schaan to his billet and me to the 26th Marines and eventually to Khe Sanh, the Siege.

Super Bowl II was played on January 14, 1968, between the Packers and the Oakland Raiders. Two months later I found out that the Packers won that game, too. I was sitting in Khe Sanh in the platoon commander’s hooch on radio watch, going through a pile of old Stars and Stripes.

I recall seeing the notice about the game and as I remember it now, contrary to all the blare and hoopla surrounding the professional sports these days, the report on Super Bowl II was short and somewhat buried beneath news about Korea, Germany, the war in Vietnam and the lists of who died in combat prior to the week of that particular issue.

That Stars and Stripes was months old, but that shouldn’t be surprising, given the delays getting mail in to us during the Siege. Sometimes we went days, even weeks, without seeing mail.

I can remember reading the newspaper report on the game, thinking about it, and consciously making a decision to put that piece of info back somewhere where it wouldn’t hinder my attempts to stay alive. When you are surrounded by thirty or forty thousand enemy determined to kill you, who wins the Super Bowl isn’t a particularly big deal.

Back then, football fans had their heroes—Jim Brown and Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas and Deacon Jones, to name a few—but in those days, athletes weren’t as well paid as they are now and they weren’t worshiped like they are now, as I remember it.
In the late 1960s a game was only a game and not a life-and-death event, contrary, it seems, to all the hype we get twenty-four/seven from the sports promoters and sports reporters who make a living convincing us these games are the most important things in the world.

Back when I was young a lot of the great athletes were veterans of either (or both) World War II and Korea, and had given up some of their playing careers to serve the country. Now, I rarely see the name of any veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan up in the sports’ heroes shining light hoopla.

Blog author, Ken Rodgers, while serving at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O'Hara.

Blog author, Ken Rodgers, while serving at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

It’s sad to me, that while we have thousands of our youth going out, losing legs, arms, suffering Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD or being killed, these sporting icons are getting paid all the money they make. I don’t blame these young stars for taking the money. It’s there and we, the American public, are willing to pay for all the hype.

And therein lies the irony. We have met the enemy and he is us, as I think the Walt Kelly cartoon character Pogo said. It’s us. We glorify these young athletes because they can run and jump and throw and think fast. I think we should be glorifying our returning service people, too. Imagine if they got paid like the sports stars of today. I don’t think it would take long for the public to send up a savage ballyhoo about the high cost of war.

I know I may be dreaming, but what if we increased the pay of these kids going off to war and gave them some real recognition instead of a “thank you for your service” as we head out the door to work, to work out, to go to a concert.

So, I may not watch the Super Bowl this year, because I’ve gotten kind of sick of all the fanfare about super jocks making super money for nothing more than a game. But I am certain I will wrestle with my Khe Sanh Siege depression and I will also lift my glass to all the younger warriors who are willing to use their arms and legs for something more important than scoring touchdowns.

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