By Leon Bibb, anchor and reporter at WEWS-TV, News Channel 5
It was the mid-1960s, resting in the midst of an ongoing war in North Vietnam as well as in South Vietnam, and tempers in the United States swayed like a wispy weeping willow. This tree had no secrets to tell though. All of us knew of the fight because the war had a total of 3 million Americans involved in it over the period of a decade. In the war in Vietnam, 59,000 Americans were killed.
This seemingly endless war most certainly took its toll on so many in the U.S. and all over the world. It was our war; their war; a war that put us side-by-side with our Southern Vietnamese allies in a time of great hope, as well as great despair.
I was in my youth at the time; not quite 22 years old. My life was ahead of me. I had dreams of furthering my ambitions as a reporter in our great city of Cleveland. After graduating from Bowling Green State University in 1966 with a degree in journalism, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take on a full-time job at the Plain Dealer. I can tell you this was a proud moment in my life. To be a staff writer, gathering and reporting the news of our region, to the great people of our region, was to put it mildly an awesome responsibility.
We all watched as the war continued to rage on. It took so many lives that it was a paralyzing force to watch. Everyone was hoping the war would just end with honor, but it kept going on and on. At some point the war in Vietnam had to reach out and touch me I thought.
My call had finally come
As it would stand, it did do just that. One afternoon while working on a story at the PD, my mother called with a distinctive concern in her voice. I had received a letter from the Selective Service. Since I was living at home with my parents at the time, the letter to came to our Cleveland address. At the time, the letter came addressed to me, my mother theorized what it was because it was from the Selective Service – the draft. Holding the envelope, my mother called me at work, insisting that she open it for me. Knowing what it would say, I replied to her that “I’ll take a look at it
when I come home mother.”
As suspected, she resisted my request to leave the letter for me to open it later that day. My mother broke the seal and read what the government had sent me. As I remained on the phone waiting patiently, her nervousness practically palpable, she opened the letter and began to cry. “They’re drafting you… they want you… you gotta go [to basic training] next month!”
The news was, of course, troubling for me, yet expected. During those times, I inwardly understood the draft would be almost a certainty. When I came home that evening, we sat down and simply talked about the letter and what was to come. There was some solace in the words my father shared that evening though. As a World War II veteran, draft shortly after Pearl Harbor, he imparted in me many of the most basic, yet memorable qualities and traits I should take with me on my military journey.
Although simple advice, it was relevant and resonated with me to this very day. Dad said “You’re gonna meet men of all walks of life. You’re gonna meet men who didn’t finish high school. You’re gonna be with men who graduated college… southern white boys and northern black boys… all kinds of people, but what’s important is to get along with people and do what the officers order you to do and learn to do your job.”
The support extended beyond my father. All of my uncles were in the military, as well as my soon to be father-in-law, his brothers, and other men in his life. They left a rich legacy of military honor and duty throughout the two families.
So there was nothing unusual about being drafted – it was just part of our lifestyle. If you talk to anyone from that time [a World War II veteran], just about every man of age was in the military. That knowledge was part of my growing up. That was the way it was.
Of course, I looked inward and reflected on this new reality that was sitting right in front of me. But, I kept telling myself “If the government called, it was my obligation to go. Who should go if I don’t go? So I answered the call. It was my duty.”
My time defending our nation
The day I was drafted, my father drove me down to the Standard Building in downtown Cleveland on Nov. 8 at 5:30 a.m. to report for duty. This was the place every area person who was drafted, or who enlisted, went to sign in. That vast pool of men who were in the military and served in the war that yielded such an uncertain future was astonishing. But I, and all of those other patriotic men, forged on to answer the call from our nation.
Within three months of receiving an earlier letter from Selective Service, I had gone through the physical exam, testing, and induction. I was basic trained and deployed. It was a whirlwind, all meant to prepare me to protect our country. Along the way, I would learn to do my job and survive against the enemy.
Only a few hours after my induction, when my feet hit Fort Benning, Georgia, where I underwent basic training, I thought to myself, “I am putting away civilian things now… I am now a soldier and that is what I do for a living.” The key was learning to do the things required of me so I could learn to defend myself, my country and have the best possible chance of coming home.
After eight weeks of basic training, came eight more weeks of advance individual training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After that, I was assigned to a unit in Fort Sill. For the next few months, I served in an artillery unit until orders came for me to go to Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the initial plan was for me to be a truck driver within a convoy for the Fourth Infantry Division. However, I never made it to that job. I had mentioned to someone that I had a degree in journalism. To my surprise, I was something of a commodity. With that newfound knowledge, they assigned me to be a public information officer at a firebase in the middle of the jungle in a tent that had PIO on it.
Working for a full Colonel, I handled clerical work, writing, reports and combat photography. When I was not writing or taking photos, I still had to go out on patrol. I spent nights in the dark jungle, searching for the enemy or guarding the perimeter, watching for the enemy in the event of an ambush.
My two years went on in a similar fashion. I did my job, kept my head down and kept open lines of communication. Those were the traits my dad instilled in me during our chats leading up to my deployment and they served me greatly during those years of unease, fear, challenge and hope. That mentality allowed me to survive and to perform courageous acts beyond what I thought I could do. I still think about those words of wisdom to this day with fond memories and a full heart.
My return home, a lifetime of knowledge
When I returned home after being discharged in the fall of 1968, I was changed in many ways for the better. Being in the war and having those intense experiences made me more aware of the importance of life and how precious it truly is. I’d seen death in the reflection of men’s eyes and souls.
One of those reflections was personal. It was the death of a friend, who would now be my age were he to have survived. To know his life ended at the mere age of 21 is a powerful, heartbreaking and life-changing event that shed a light on the beauty of life.
During the past several years, I have been in touch with his parents and his sister. It was a bittersweet moment to reach them and begin communications.
It made me realize the importance of our military and that when we send our men and women, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to war, some are not going to come back. This is the harsh reality. This is the reason we must make sure that whatever conflict the U.S. gets involved in is worth getting involved in for the betterment of our country and the world.
My resolve for supporting our veterans
I can say with certainty that we must support the troops we send into the field of battle every day and in every way. We must not just support them while active on the stages of war, but encourage and support them more vigorously when they return home. They are only following the orders of a nation. When they went and fired their weapons, their fingers were not the only fingers on the trigger. In a way, all of America’s fingers were on that trigger. It is our responsibility to welcome them back into society with open arms, open hearts, and open minds.
When they come home bruised, battered, troubled and emotionally devastated, we have to be there for them. We have to find ways to increase the support of our veterans, especially in these chaotic times, with programs and services, some of which United Way supports.
Fitting back into society is an even greater challenge now. Our veterans need emotional, physical, employment, and financial support, among a myriad of other needs. We must embrace them, hold them closely and shield them from harm in our attempts to help them find their ways. United Way serves in such a fashion to help those veterans in critical need.
It all comes down to love. It is the love of fellow man, of humanity, and of our veterans. That is what United Way is all about – providing the love, care, resources and support so many veterans are desperately seeking. We can be their beacons of hope. We can and must treat U.S. military veterans with respect and help those who do not have voices find theirs. United Way can be one of the voices to help veterans find what they need and claim it. Let us be the love and the hope for our veterans.
About Leon Bibb
Raised in Cleveland’s Glenville area, and a graduate of Glenville High School on the city’s east side, Bibb’s broadcasting career began during his student days at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Following graduation, he worked as a newspaper reporter at The Plain Dealer.
Prior to joining WEWS-TV in 1995, Bibb worked at WKYC-TV as the weekend News Anchor and News Reporter starting in 1979. In 1986, he became Primary News Anchor for the Monday through Friday newscasts there.
He has narrated and hosted many shows at WEWS-TV, including “My Ohio with Leon Bibb,” “Leon Bibb’s Perspective,” “Kaleidoscope,” and a series called “Our Hometown.” Bibb has interviewed numerous political leaders and notable figures, including President Barack Obama, President George H. W. Bush, Neil Armstrong, and James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
*Photos courtesy of Leon Bibb and Selective Service Publications