Who Will Be Last Soldier to Die for Iraq Mistake?

By: Greg Mitchell

This week, in all the press reports on the growing (if so far polite) revolt by conservative Republicans in Congress against current Bush policy on Iraq, what struck me the most was an explanation by Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico.

Now, many might say that the real, and only, reason for Domenici finally seeing the light on the need for a pullback in Iraq was simply one short group of numbers: 2008. He is up for re-election next year. So are many of the other GOP hawks.

But let’s give the man the benefit of a doubt, and take the following at face value. Speaking to reporters from Albuquerque on Thursday, Domenici said his change of heart came after recent conversations with families of New Mexico soldiers killed in Iraq.

Normally, such families have argued for the U.S. to stay in Iraq and accomplish something so that their loved ones did not “die in vain” — at least according to reports by the president and many other offiicals who meet them. But now Domenici reveals that many are asking him to do more to save those still serving in Iraq.

?I heard nothing like that a couple of years ago,? he said. ?I think that?s the result of this war dragging on almost indefinitely.?

A more profound shift could hardly be imagined. It means the media should re-examine a familiar phrase that I, literally, grew up with. They ought to update John Kerry?s famous question in 1971, as a Vietnam veterans? leader, ?How do you ask someone to be the last American soldier to die for a mistake??

That seems to be on the mind of The New York Times, anyway, as it contains this line in its historic editorial, just posted online, calling for a U.S. pullout: “Continuing to sacrifice the lives and limbs of American soldiers is wrong.” In its get-out-of-Iraq editorial today, the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News refers directly to the fresh advice from military families to Domenici.

Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to ask: Well, who WAS the last soldier to die for the Vietnam mistake?

To my surprise, with a little research, I discovered that there is a consensus on who that individual was. We?ll get to his name in a moment, but what?s most relevant is that he died almost five years after that ?mistake? was widely acknowledged. How many will die from now until the last American perishes in Iraq? Gallup and other polls show that about 6 in 10 Americans have already labeled the Iraq invasion a “mistake.”

We are at a haunting juncture in the Iraq war. Forgive me for another ?back in the day? reference, but I recall very well that the public only turned strongly against the Vietnam conflict with the mass realization that young American lives were not only being lost but truly wasted. Contrary to myth, this did not happen promptly after Walter Cronkite?s war-doubting monologue on CBS in 1968.

Last December, a woman named Beverly Fabri told the Washington Post, almost three years after her 19-year-old son, Army Pvt. Bryan Nicholas Spry, was killed, “I’m beginning to feel like he just died in vain, I really am.? That?s because she believes, “We are not going to win this war. And we shouldn’t have gotten involved with it in the first place.”

What?s next in this Vietnam flashback? Soldiers refusing to go out on dangerous patrols? Fragging of officers who do send their men foolishly into harm?s way?

Now, who was that last American to die in Vietnam?

According to Arlington National Cemetery, and numerous other sources, he was Army Col. William B. Nolde, a 43-year-old father of five. He was killed Jan. 27, 1973, near An Loc ? just 11 hours before the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords — when an artillery shell exploded nearby.

This is how Time magazine reported it the following week: ?The last hours of the Viet Nam War took a cruel human toll. Communist and South Vietnamese casualties ran into the thousands. Four U.S. airmen joined the missing-in-action list when their two aircraft were downed on the last day. Another four Americans were known to have been killed?including Lieut. Colonel William B. Nolde, 43, of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., who was cut down in an artillery barrage at An Loc only eleven hours before the ceasefire. He was the 45,941st American to have died by enemy action in Viet Nam since 1961.?

His Wikipedia entry opens: ?Born in Menominee, Michigan, Nolde was a professor of military science at Central Michigan University before joining the army. As an officer, he served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, acting as an advisor to the South Vietnamese forces in the latter?.

?While other Americans lost their lives after the truce was enacted, these were not recorded as combat casualties. During his time in the armed forces, he had accumulated four medals, including the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit.?

His full military funeral was so momentous — it included the same riderless horse who accompanied President Kennedy’s coffin — it was covered on the front page of The New York Times on Feb. 6, 1973. That story began, ?The Army buried one of its own today, Bill Nolde. And with him, it laid to rest ? symbolically, at least ? its years of torment in Vietnam.?

How many more years of torment and wasted lives remain in Iraq?

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