Tribute to military veterans in Santa Rosa examines toll of war

Three combat veterans of twice that many wars sat before a large luncheon crowd in Santa Rosa on Thursday and spoke of some of the historic constants to being a human being in battle, and some of the changes over time.

World War II vet Phil McSpadden told about 550 veterans, Rotary and Kiwanis members and other guests of the service clubs’ 18th Tribute to Our Veterans that he volunteered to jump from airplanes into the great and hostile unknown in Nazi-occupied Europe for the pay: Army paratroopers earned double the $50-per-month paid to earthbound privates.

Recalling a massive, aerial invasion of southern France prior to Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, McSpadden said from the stage of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building that as he and waves of fellow paratroopers leaped from 318 transport planes, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong: the weather, the coordination, the communications.

“We had a lot of casualties,” said the vet, who would go on to serve in Korea, survive a bayonet wound inflicted by a Chinese soldier and later complete two tours in Vietnam.

A twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, former Army officer Philip Gioia, sat at a table on the vets building stage between McSpadden and David Scott, who joined the Marines at 17 and at 21 was a squad leader in the invasion of Iraq.

Scott said the history of warfare dictated to him and his fellow Marines that “we did not want to make enemies of the Iraqi people.” He said it was clear to him that the Iraqi citizens who were cooperative and the Iraqi soldiers who dumped their weapons and uniforms believed they could trust the Marines to treat them fairly.

Scott revealed to the balloon- and flag-bedecked pre-Veterans Day celebration that as he led his squad toward Baghdad, “my biggest concern was I didn’t want to be on CNN for doing something stupid.” And, he said, he reminded himself all along to strive with each order and action to bring honor to his unit and to the Marine Corps.

The trio’s pride at having served their country played well with a patriotic audience that savored also the sack lunches, the color guard from the Coast Guard’s training center at Two Rock and rousing music from the Elsie Allen High School marching band and drum line.

As the band played the official songs of each branch of the military, the veterans of that arm of the service stood to spirited applause.

The event’s master of ceremonies, retired Sonoma County judge and Army general Gary Medvigy, noted that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the 50th anniversary of the bloody Tet Offensive by North Vietnam that was not victorious militarily but even so turned many Americans against the war.

The luncheon’s three speakers took just 10 minutes each but shared with the crowd memories of combat that spanned from 1942 in Italy to 2002 in Iraq.

McSpadden, the veteran of three wars, declared that despite all that he suffered and witnessed, “I’m a paratrooper for life.”

Gioia, who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam and appears in Ken Burns’ documentary on the war, recalled that many of his fellow soldiers carried Bibles, talismans and all manner of good luck charms.

“I did hear a lot of pleas and promises to God under fire,” he said.

Gioia said many Vietnam veterans have reflected the past 50 or so years on what they were fighting for and many have concluded: each other.

“They were terrific,” he said. “America should be proud of every one of them.”

Scott, who served in the post-9/11 war on terror and in the invasion of Iraq, told the Tribute to Our Veterans it’s expected of every generation of vets to recall the good old days to younger vets.

“The truth,” he said, “is the United States military is getting better and better and better.”

You can reach reporter Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and

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