The Best Defense

Thank you, Commander Bell

By Commander H.B. Le, U.S. Navy

Best Defense guest columnist

On April 30, 1975, a 34 year-old South Vietnamese Navy commander -- the commanding officer of Nha Be Naval Support Base near Saigon -- navigated a small fishing trawler towards the South China Sea. Saigon had just fallen, and the trawler, crowded with 200 refugees, cautiously weaved its way down the Soi Rap River. In the span of just a few hours, as other refugees were plucked from smaller or sinking boats, the passengers had swelled to 400. After two uncertain days at sea and on the first birthday of the commander's youngest child, the refugees were taken on board the tank landing ship USS Barbour County (LST 1195).

On November 7, 2009, along with the U.S. 7th Fleet's flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), my ship arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam for a scheduled goodwill port visit. This visit was my first return to Vietnam since my father, mother, and three of my seven siblings and I departed in that fishing trawler. My father had navigated the trawler to sea, and, for me, navigating USS Lassen (DDG 82) into Da Nang Harbor brought me full circle to our past.

During that unforgettable port visit, I was interviewed by local and international news media. Most questions dealt with my thoughts on returning to my native country. Like my siblings who had come to America in 1975, I have always felt fortunate to grow up in the United States and to enjoy all the opportunities this great nation offers. It was a privilege for my sailors and me to represent USS Lassen and the U.S. Navy to the people of Vietnam.

It was also deeply moving for me to travel to my birthplace of Hue, joined by one of my older brothers who had graciously flown from Singapore, where he worked. Hue is just 50 miles northwest of Da Nang, and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend a few hours reuniting with two aunts, an uncle, and extended family members.

Throughout the port visit and for several days afterwards, I received heartwarming e-mails and notes from family and friends, as well as from people I did not know. Easily the most remarkable was a short letter I received in the ship's mail on November 18, eight days after USS Lassen departed Da Nang Harbor:

Commanding Officer
USS Lassen (DDG 82)
FPO AP 96671-1299

November 6, 2009

Dear Captain,

Congratulations on your command. I read with interest the press release about your visit to your homeland. I was the Executive Officer of the USS Barbour County (LST 1195) at the time of your rescue. I have wondered throughout the years what became of the myriad people we took on board and transported to the Philippines (Grandy Island). Again, congratulations and enjoy your tour.

Russ Bell CDR, USN (Retired)

I was thrilled when I read the letter and e-mailed my father right away. He wrote in response from his home in Virginia:

We finally have the opportunity to express our gratitude to one of the people who saved us and gave us a new beginning in the United States of America. Would you please send our thanks to CDR Russ Bell and his crew for helping and saving us at sea on May 2nd, 1975 and bringing us to Freedom? I still remember that on the 3rd of May, the XO was the one who gave me an envelope and then helped to send my letter from the Barbour County to Uncle Ed Rowe at his parents' address in Kansas City, MO. It comes back to my memory very clearly now, just like it happened yesterday! God bless the crew of USS Barbour County and their families. God bless the U.S.A.

Today on behalf of my family, I wish to thank Commander Russ Bell, U.S. Navy (Retired) and the crew of USS Barbour County. Also, thank you to Uncle Ed -- Colonel Ed Rowe, U.S Army (Retired) -- and his wonderful family for sponsoring us all those years ago... and happy 39th birthday to my dear brother, Phil.

Commander Hung Ba Le was the commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82) from April 2009 to December 2010. One of seven destroyers assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, Lassen's namesake is Commander Clyde E. Lassen, who received the Medal of Honor for his courageous rescue of two downed aviators while commander of a search and rescue helicopter in Vietnam. Commander Le is currently serving as a fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in Cambridge, MA.

The Best Defense

Watching Iraq on the edge, and wondering what the United States will do

By Emma Sky

Best Defense bureau chief, Iraq

The famous Iraqi sociologist, Ali Wardi, wrote about the dual personalities of Iraqis. For many of us who served in Iraq, this is something we also seem to have developed.

I spent the weekend in Texas, staying with American friends I served with in Iraq. Although we had not seen each other in years, conversation came easily. Our shared experiences away at war had created life-long bonds. We reminisced about our time together -- the sense of purpose, the camaraderie, our small victories. We laughed. We drank. We ate unhealthy fast food. We gossiped about people we knew. Together, we visited the memorial at Fort Hood to pay our respects to the 450 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division killed in Iraq.

But all weekend I also surfed the Internet for news and chatted with Iraqi friends. Iraq is spiraling out of control. Following the arrests in December of the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, Sunnis took to the streets, revealing their widespread sense of alienation in the new Iraq and demanding the end of what they consider a government policy to marginalize them. As with other protests in the Arab world, they were initially driven by legitimate grievances. But against the backdrop of provincial elections, little was done to address the concerns of the protestors -- despite calls to do so from the top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani. Politicians instead exploited the demonstrations for electoral gains. President Maliki took the opportunity to distract attention away from the lack of services and rampant corruption, presenting himself as the defender of the Shia, in the face of Sunni regional powers intent on overthrowing Shia regimes -- Syria first, then Iraq. Sunni politicians, for their part, sought to benefit from the demonstrations to rail against government oppression to gain support for their own electoral campaigns.

Last week, the Iraqi Army entered Hawija, near Kirkuk, to arrest people accused of attacking Iraqi Security Forces. In the ensuing violence, 200 people were killed. There are reports of desertions from the Iraqi Army. Kurds have moved peshmerga into positions in the disputed territories. Tribes are forming militias to protect themselves from the Iraqi Army. Five Iraqi soldiers were killed in Anbar -- and the province has been put under curfew. Ten satellite channels, including al-Jazeera, have been banned, accused of spreading sectarianism. Bombs exploded in Shia towns. The speaker of parliament called for the government to resign and for early elections.

By seeking to eliminate his Sunni rivals, Maliki has removed the wedge that the U.S. military drove between Sunni extremists and the Sunni mainstream during the Surge, at such great cost. There is a growing sense that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are merging into one, with Shia regimes, backed by Iran, battling against Sunnis, including al Qaeda elements. We may be witnessing the breakdown of the post-WW I settlement and the nation-states established under the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Many Iraqis still cannot fathom how the United States could lose interest in Iraq and simply walk away after so much investment. They explain it in terms of conspiracy theories: a "secret agreement" between the United States and Iran; a "deal" between Biden and Maliki to divide up Iraq.

Will our legacy from the Iraq war be a regional power struggle ignited by the resurgence of Iran, the contagion of sectarianism into Syria, the horrific violence of jihadist groups? Is this in our national interest? Can we not do more to make Iraq a more positive influence in its neighborhood?

As the situation deteriorates, I wonder, will the United States proactively develop, articulate, and adopt strategies to engender a better balance of power in the region -- or reactively respond to the inevitable fallout with tactical measures.

Emma Sky is a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute. She served in Iraq 2003-2004 as the governorate coordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and 2007-2010 as the political advisor to General Odierno.

Lady Emma Sky