America salutes Minnesota Gen. John Vessey, a ‘soldier’s soldier’ 

Flags will remain at half-staff across the state for the rest of August as tributes pour in following the passing of Gen. John Vessey Jr., the Minnesotan chosen by President Reagan to serve as the nation’s top military

From a 17 year old underage enlistee in the Minnesota National Guard to the top echelons of the Pentagon, Vessey was the country’s longest-serving active soldier with 46 years of service by the end of his active duty.

The New York Times called Vessey, a four star general, a surprise choice for the Joint Chiefs’ top post who was cut from the same cloth as his Commander in Chief.

Plain-spoken, he had none of the polish of former chairmen, and unlike most of them he had never been a service chief. He had mostly been a combat officer, out of Washington’s limelight. But he was regarded as a leader of proven courage and integrity who inspired confidence. He was also an old-fashioned patriot, and Reagan liked him.

…The general was entitled to wear seven rows of battle decorations and campaign ribbons, but kept most of them in a drawer. On Memorial Days, instead of riding in staff cars, he marched to Arlington National Cemetery to pray at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He disliked jargon; to him, “restoring peace of favorable terms” meant winning the war. He rarely gave news conferences or interviews, and avoided the spotlight.

Sen. John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, joined countless others who were inspired by Vessey over the decades, to honor the Minnesotan’s character, leadership and service.

As Chairman, he led the long overdue modernization of the military, and helped strengthen NATO and guide it through the last great Soviet challenges to the alliance. He was indispensible to those efforts, but typically wanted neither public acclaim nor private praise for his leadership. He was a selfless patriot if ever there was one. He knew humility was the most important virtue for a leader.

He left his last command and retired a year early. He had promised his beloved wife, Avis, who passed away last year after sixty-nine years of marriage, that he would go home to their lake in Minnesota before the first snowfall.

Yet most telling are the condolences shared online by those who fought under Vessey, such as Peter L. Cullen.

I served in Vietnam with then Lt. Col. Vessey in the same brigade, the 3rd Brigade 4th Infantry Div. his able and heroic leadership at L.Z. Gold -Battle of Sui Tre in March of 1967 was critical in defeating very large Viet Cong force and saving many of his soldiers from being casualties. His career as a soldier is inspiring and remarkable! He was the only soldier to hold every enlisted rank and officer rank from pvt. to General ,as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Vessey was a great patriot who served his country for many years! my condolences to the Vessey Family. God bless and R.I.P.

The Minneapolis native lived out a low-key retirement in keeping with his reputation as a ‘soldier’s soldier,’ residing on Little Whitefish Lake and attending Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Garrison. Local residents like Steve and Beth Lawrence commented in Vessey’s online guestbook that they were struck by his humility.

The first time we met I called him Sir and he said just call me Jack. He was humble to the core and lived by the motto “To God be the Glory”. May more of our leaders learn from his example. Be at peace soldier for you are home.

Post retirement, Vessey answered the call of duty once more as a special envoy to investigate the fate of Americans who were prisoners of war or missing in action, a highly successful operation highlighted by the Times.

General Vessey’s breakthrough talks with Hanoi in 1988 led to on-the-ground searches by Pentagon teams that uncovered the remains of about 900 American military personnel over the next two decades, and to official conclusions that no American prisoners were still being held in Vietnam…

Funeral services for Gen. Vessey will be held on August 31 at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel at Fort Snelling. True to form, he will be interred at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery at Camp Ripley.

JOHN HINDERAKER adds: Shortly before the first Gulf War, I heard a radio interview with General Vessey, I believe on WCCO. At that time, Vietnam was a relatively recent memory, and there was a lot of concern about how our Army would fare against Saddam’s widely feared troops–hard to recall, in retrospect. The radio host set up the interview with the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who, he said, was now living in northern Minnesota. The phone rang and a woman’s voice answered. The radio host asked for General Vessey; the woman called, “John!” Next a screen door slammed and you could hear steps approaching the phone. “Hello,” said General Vessey. It was a classic Minnesota moment.

This is why the interview stuck in my mind: the radio host asked how Vessey thought our troops would do in the imminent conflict. General Vessey replied (no quotation marks since I can’t be exact, but this is very close): The hardest thing in warfare is to train and motivate your troops so that they have the will to close with the enemy and kill him. Our army is one of the few in the world that have this quality. I think our men will do very well.

I can’t help wondering whether our present administration would put anyone in charge of the armed forces who speaks so bluntly about war as it really is. General John Vessey, RIP.