Veteran’s Day 2019: Courage of Convictions vs. Conduct Unbecoming

The World War I Memorial in Washington D.C.

One hundred years ago, with a declaration from President Woodrow Wilson, the United States first celebrated the holiday originally known as “Armistice Day.” It marked the time, one year before, when – at 11 AM, Nov. 11, 1918 – an official truce in World War I hostilities had been achieved, ultimately leading to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, which ended the conflict then known as “the War to End All Wars.”

Originally, the holiday commemoration required a two-minute suspension of business activities – a two-minute moment of silence, if you will – at 11 in the morning.

Twenty years later, in May 1938, Congress passed legislation designating Armistice Day as a permanent U.S. holiday “dedicated to the cause of world peace.” A mere two months before, German Nazi military forces had invaded and taken over the government of Austria.

Folllowing World War II and the Korean War, Congress changed the name of the holiday to “Veterans Day.” In his October 8,1954, proclamation marking the first official celebration of the renamed holiday, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, “Let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting and enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

Just five months prior, on May 7, 1954, Vietnamese military forces had overrun the military base at Dien Bien Phu, marking the end of French colonial rule in southeast Asia. On June 1, 1954, the U.S. responded by launching a covert paramilitary operation. The Saigon Military Mission marked the beginning of the Vietnam War, which would continue for nearly 20 years, claim the lives of more than 58,000 Americans, and leave an additional 150,000 wounded and injured.

That conflict would also prompt civilian derision – even hostility – toward its veterans. The majority of those who served during the Vietnam War had no choice: they were conscripted through the draft, rather than signing up voluntarily.

Veterans Memorial in Iberville Parish.

I remember how it was. I served, volunteering in the Army at the end of the Vietnam War era. I quickly learned that, in my uniform, I was a target for scorn and sometimes spittle.

I don’t say this to get you to gabble a hasty “thank you for your service” in my direction. No matter how sincere your intentions, at this point it seems merely obligatory and as over-used as “thoughts and prayers.”

Instead, I say this as a reminder that for nearly 40 years at the end of the 20th Century, much of the general public did not view military service as an overly-worthy endeavor. It wasn’t until a cloudless September morning in New York and Washington D.C. that patriotism virtually became the Official Religion of the United States.

WWI British recruiting poster from author’s collection.

Among those evidencing little esteem for those of us who have served are two men who found a way to refuse their country’s call to arms: Republican candidate for Louisiana governor, Eddie Rispone, and the president he he idolizes, Donald Trump.

Both had managed to avoid military service during Vietnam: Rispone had a student deferment; Trump got a doctor to write him a medical excuse.

Even now, Rispone’s disdain for the value of military service continues.

On Friday, Nov. 1, Rispone interviews with the morning radio show hosts, Matt Dunn and Jim Legget, on Alexandria’s KSYL. Quizzed regarding his whereabouts, Rispone remarked that while he was still in Baton Rouge, he would “be flying up to Alexandria” for a campaign appearance later that day.

Poor Eddie. He was clueless about how elitist that sounded, even after one of the radio hosts pointed out that would be a flight that “takes what? 20 minutes?”

The GOP candidate then began his standard drumbeat against Gov. John Bel Edwards, repeating almost rhythmically, “Liberal trial lawyer, trial lawyer, liar, liar, liberal.”

But what about Edwards’ West Point experience, his military experience?, Legget asked.

“I’m disappointed in that,” Rispone said, “If I have to be candid. I think he’s hurt the reputation of West Point. I don’t think West Point wants to turn out a bunch of trial lawyers that will say or do anything to stay in power.”

Edwards immediately issued a statement calling for Rispone to apologize for those comments. The Advocate’s editorial board scolded Rispone and advised him to apologize. He didn’t.

That afternoon, Rispone issued a Twitter statement calling Edwards’ reaction “typical fake liberal outrage.”

“Don’t fall for his typical trial lawyer act,” the tweet said. “I love our veterans, their service and West Point – and we can’t thank them enough. The only thing being attacked here is Edwards’ liberal trial lawyer, car insurance raising, job losing, economy draining record.”

World War I Memorial Grove at Louisiana State University. Photo courtesy LSU

On Sunday, November 3, at a campaign appearance in Pineville, Rispone was asked: Do you think it was a good idea to attack a West Point graduate?

“I did not attack a West Point grad. What I did, I said I’ve had West Point graduates come up to me and say they’re embarrassed about this governor because he will lie, and that he lied over and over again. If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t say it. But I wasn’t attacking West Point. That’s what the governor said.”

Rispone continued, “I’ve had West Point graduates come to me and say they’re embarrassed about this guy because he lies over and over again. And I just said that West Point people are not exactly happy with him because he will say and do anything to hold onto his power. I didn’t criticize West Point; I was actually complimenting West Point. And then the press, of course, is playing it the other way. That answer your question?”

I’m curious who these West Point graduates were. We certainly know Rispone has heard this spiel from a West Point washout – his mentor and bestie, Lane Grigsby.

Grigsby was unable to pass muster as an “officer and a gentleman,” presumably because he indulged in “conduct unbecoming an officer.” He dropped out of West Point, and once he married his pregnant girlfriend, he transferred to LSU. According to an account by perhaps the only journalist who ever read Grigsby’s self-published memoir; the couple had decided to elope. The pregnancy came shortly afterward.

This was in the middle of the last half of the 1960s, when regulations required West Point cadets to remain unmarried throughout their schooling.

The recently dedicated Gold Star Families Memorial Mall Monument on display at the grounds of the state Capitol in Baton Rouge.
WWII poster from author’s collection.

Grigsby isn’t personally speaking out in support of his buddy’s pronouncements regarding the opinions of West Point alumni, because, following the attempted bribe of a state senate candidate, Rispone’s campaign has reportedly told the Great Grigsby to sit down and shut up until the polls close at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 16.

Yet the questionably-named Truth in Politics PAC, co-founded and co-funded by Grigsby, put out an ad attacking the governor and his West Point dorm-mate, which was challenged by the Edwards’ campaign due to its blatant falsehoods. Grigsby’s organization had listed a public records request in support of its assertions. In other words, they submitted a letter asking for public documents and decided to depict their own letter as a government record.

On Friday, Nov. 8, the PAC withdrew the ad, which had only run on one station in the New Orleans market.

Unlike Rispone, making disparaging statements gleaned from unnamed individuals, and backed by a mentor now being begged to just stay lurking in the shadows, John Bel Edwards has had no shortage of bonafide West Point graduates and military veterans stepping forward to dispute Rispone’s characterization of the governor, his service, and West Point alumni’s opinion of such.

“I know Gov Edwards personally. I and all the West Point graduates that I know think his eight years service to our Army and our Country, as well as his continuing service to the people of Louisiana, reflect great credit upon our Alma Mater,” stated William F. Murdy, chairman of the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point (and West Point distinguished graduate of the Class of ‘64.) “Mr. Rispone’s implied West Point ‘disappointment’ in Gov Edwards is unfounded and crass on its face and indicates a profound lack of knowledge about what service to country and Louisiana are about.”

Twenty-four of Edwards’ West Point classmates from the Class of ‘88 signed on to a letter addressed to the people of Louisiana, which states, in part, “At every step of his life, Jon Bel Edwards has embodied the spirit of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He knows what it means to serve.”

WWI poster from the author’s collection.

I find myself in agreement with Louisiana’s Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, retired U.S. Army Col. Joey Strickland, who said, simply and succinctly, “Mr. Rispone’s comments disparage all who have served.”

To me, the most striking development from Rispone’s disparagement of the governor and – by extension – of military service in general is Col. Rob Maness’ public announcement that he was leaving the Republican Party, because of Rispone, his buddy Lane Grigsby, and their tactics.

“I can’t justify staying with a group that gets behind someone like Eddie Rispone, who is tied with Grigsby, and they’ve been working together for years, influencing Louisiana politics. It’s illegal and it’s corrupt – in my opinion.”

Maness is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, and has run as a conservative Tea Party Republican for U.S. Senate and the state legislature. Four years ago, he endorsed and supported David Vitter for Louisiana governor.

Veterans Memorial in Carencro, Louisiana.

And while I personally disagree with many of the political and social policies Maness (and John Bel Edwards, for that matter) supports, I appreciate his acting upon his convictions in this matter. And if you have ever questioned – publicly, privately, or within the confines of your own mind – certain politicians’ turning a blind eye to egregiously despicable statements and actions from people within their own party, in preference to remaining loyal for retention of both party and personal political power, then you, too, should applaud Maness for his stance on this issue. It can’t have been an easy decision for such a staunch conservative to turn his back on the GOP.

“Our choice is clear,” Maness now says. “Eddie Rispone has never served or sacrificed one day for our state or country in uniform, even though he could have in the Vietnam era, but he chose a college deferment instead and didn’t volunteer after he graduated. Even with these facts, Rispone has seen fit to disparage John Bel Edwards’ military service just so he can win a political campaign.”

That is insulting to every veteran, and – as the Governor is the de facto commander-in-chief of the state’s National Guard forces – disqualifies Mr. Rispone from commanding the respect of the members of such forces, should he be elected. The whining criticism of someone who did serve – from Rispone himself who did not – is conduct unbecoming a potential commander-in-chief. Hell, it’s conduct unbecoming a human being.

As a veteran, I ask that you consider – and remember – this beyond today’s holiday. Won’t you keep it in mind through Saturday’s election, too?