HUTCHINSON — Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North said he remains in touch with veterans he knew from media embeds in Afghanistan, and all of them are broken-hearted about how the United States left that country.
What’s more, so are many Vietnam veterans, as it reminds them of the messy ending to their war.
The former Fox News commentator and “War Stories with Oliver North” host spoke Thursday, Nov. 18, in Hutchinson for the annual Saluting Community Heroes fundraiser, which brought veterans from across the state together for food and camaraderie.
It raised about $250,000. Proceeds after meal expenses will benefit veterans in McLeod County and throughout Minnesota.
“I love keeping company with heroes. The first hero I knew was my dad,” North said.
When he was growing up, the veterans he knew were from World War I, World War II or the Korean War. North was born in 1943 at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Fox News had North hosting his “War Stories” show when the 9/11 attacks happened, and it changed everything.
“Fox News started paying me more to get shot at than the Marines ever did,” North said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was on a flight for the VA headed up the Potomac to Reagan National Airport, and they saw the damaged Pentagon from the air. Then the pilot announced the emergency and pulled up from landing. They circled above Dulles for hours before, like other aircraft in the skies that day, landing.
He then learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the crash in Pennsylvania. His wife’s hometown is Somerset, Pa., the seat of the county where Flight 93 crashed.
Roads around D.C. were jammed, and a well-paid cabbie got him in. The state troopers recognized him, and they gave him a lift to his destination.
That day, America learned about al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban allowing them to train in Afghanistan.
The United States retaliates, and North landed in southern Afghanistan embedded with a Marine task force. In fact, it was led by an officer who, years prior, had been one of North’s own lieutenants.
“We provided protection of Muslim women and children to a place where that is a strange idea,” North said.
Over 17 years, North participated in 60-plus media embeds. In talking about situational awareness, North showed footage where a soldier calls out “RPG” right before one is fired at them and a second went over their heads. He noted how the rockets move much faster than is shown in the movies, and just that sliver of time between calling it out and the explosion allowed them to move a fraction — enough to save lives.
Since the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan in August, North has spoken with veterans from his embeds in that country.
“Everyone was broken-hearted about how the end of the war happened,” North said.
He noted how the statistic of veterans suicides per day had been 25, then it went down yearly: 23, 22, 21, then 19. Now, he said, it’s back up, and it’s largely Vietnam veterans.
“They saw the same thing that’s happening now.”
The U.S. Armed Forces didn’t lose any major battles in Afghanistan or Vietnam.
“We lost the war in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.”
The term “hero,” he said, is used too often in society.
A hero is not an athlete, a politician or an actor who dons a cape in a movie.
“Real heroes put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others,” North said.
Troops today are better prepared for combat than any force in history, he said. He said ending the draft raised the bar for entering the military and has created the best force the world has ever known.
“Those who came in decided they wanted to serve their country,” North said.
The challenge for the United States is continuing to get young folks interested in serving. The trend for the percentage of the population who serve is going down.
“I tell businesses, if they want someone who understands respect and accountability, hire a veteran. They will be on time for work.”
He said America needs more places like Hutchinson, where serving your country is respected, so that the USA can continue to have a strong volunteer military.
Mike McElhiney, chief of staff for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, served as emcee for the banquet. It happened at the Hutchinson Event Center.