The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003

Paul Bucha: Challenging the Hand that Destiny Dealt


Paul "Buddy"Bucha, VVA's keynote speaker, is a true hero of the Vietnam War. A West Point graduate, he arrived in Vietnam in November 1967 in took command of D Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. Four months later, in March 1968, he and his men were inserted into a suspected enemy stronghold near Phuoc Vinh in Binh Duong Province. That force turned out to be a battalion. Days of heavy fighting ensued.

Despite being seriously wounded, Bucha crawled through heavy fire to destroy a machine gun bunker that had his company pinned down. He directed the medical evacuation of three helicopters full of seriously wounded troops and led a rescue party to recover the dead and wounded members of his company.

For his actions, Paul Bucha received the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.

He went into private business in 1972 and became an active member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, first as a fundraiser, then as its president. He serves today on the board of Veterans Advantage, Fisher House Foundation, and Intrepid Museum. He is also a member of VVA Chapter 49 in Westchester County, New York.

What follows is the speech, slightly edited, that Bucha delivered July 30 at the VVA National Convention.

Thank you very much. I accept your applause on behalf of my men. The medal I wear, I wear for them and for those of you who did not receive proper recognition. It is not mine.

I have a lot of things on my mind because I'm not exactly a happy camper. I don't believe that if you question a war or you question the government's policies on things that you care deeply about that you should be accused of being unpatriotic. Because of what I'm going to say today, I think it's inappropriate that I wear this.

[At this point, Bucha takes off his Medal of Honor.]

If I asked the Medal of Honor recipients, 136 of them, to come up front and stand before you, you'd see some are tall, some are short. Some are black, some are white, some are yellow, and most of us are a bit fat. Almost all of us are old, and right now there isn't a woman among us.  But, other than that, you'd say, "Damn, they look like us." And we are.

There is no difference whatsoever except that mysterious time where the confluence of events and circumstances came together, and a person was asked to challenge the hand that destiny had dealt. Then someone gives them a medal. Why? Because at that time they reached down and said, "No,"and reached for the potential that exists in every single person.

Think about it. An old man is crossing the street with his walker, and we're revving the engine to get to the next red light so we can stop, and we're frustrated with him. He turns around and he's wearing that blue ribbon with a little medal, and we say, "That's okay, take your time." And that kid packing our bags in the grocery store, he puts the bananas in it and drops the cans on top. We say,"Jeez," then he turns around and he's wearing a blue ribbon with a little medal. We say, "That's okay."But he's no different than the person he was before he received that medal.

Throughout history we find people like you and like me in circumstances where they had to challenge the hand that destiny had dealt. My personal hero is a little lady. She gets up in the morning, puts on her dress and her pearl white gloves, goes to a bus stop, gets on a bus, and sits in the seventh row. Some big guys get on the bus and say, "Go to the back." That lady reached down inside of herself, overcame all the fear in the world, and just said, "No." Rosa Parks changed this world, and nobody gave her a medal.

So when we say, "Don't forget," we have to remember what we're talking about. We're talking about people who are like you and me before they wear that uniform. They are entitled to the respect that that potential within them deserves. They wear that uniform and offer to go forward for a nation and look for that circumstance and reach down and change the hand that destiny has dealt. And 99 times out of 100 it's to save those on their left and right. They deserve our respect whether they have that medal or not.

Someone stands up with one hand on the Bible and one hand on the gun and we can't tell which way he is going and which side he is on, and he says, "Because you don't agree with me, you are unpatriotic. You don't support our troops.'' We - those that have been there - have to stand up to that person and say, "e fought for the right to question. Our comrades died for the right to question."

We took an oath when we came back. No other generation of veterans did. We not only said we won't leave veterans behind, we said, "Never again." Never again would we allow this nation to send its young men into combat without first knowing what the mission is. So that when they accomplished that mission, they could say, "Mission done," and they'd come home.

The last President to do that was George Bush the first, and I was opposed to that war, I'll admit it. I was afraid no one would define a mission. And he said, "When they're out of Kuwait, come home.'' When they said the gate is closed. They came home, they walked in the parades, and everybody said, "Fine.'' But then the second guessers said, "Hey, we could have gone to Baghdad. It was pretty damn easy.'' They were advocating mission creep. They were advocating that which we said we would never allow because it happened to us.

Since that day, George Bush the first has been vilified. And what has happened? Has any leader stepped forward and said, "The mission is specific''? We are doing search-and-destroy missions in Afghanistan. Yes, we wanted retribution. Yes, we wanted to smack somebody. But what are we seeing in Operation Anaconda? As my RTO said to me, "Sir, I feel like I'm back over there." We're counting bodies and counting ammo. Pretty soon we're going to be counting Coke cans because in this war, as in our war, the RTOs realize what's going on.

How many of you were RTOs? You were sitting in the jungle, and they're saying, "How many did you kill?''


"Not enough.''

"Well, 40 got away.''

"Well, that's no so hot.''

"Well, we captured some rice.''

"How much?''

"A lot.''

"How much?''

"Two tons.''

"Not enough.''

"How about three tons?''

"Got it.''

And then the RTO says, "Hell, and I found a Mrs. Paul's fish sticks box,'' knowing damn well in the Pentagon someone wearing four stars will say, "Damn. Mrs. Paul's made it to Vietnam.''

Who was that? One of you and one of me. The guys that go in, in the face of hell, and smile, but the guys who have to have the courage today to stand up and say, "No, not without a mission,'' not this nonsense of an exit strategy. The exit strategy is: Mission accomplished, I'm coming home. And the kids in Iraq today, listen to what they're saying. They sound like you. They sound like me: "I'll go into the mouth of hell for you. Just tell me when I can come home and why.''

And why is that? It's simple. We serve this country because we trust in its integrity, we trust in its wisdom. We have a right to be sure that it is wise and it is honest. And if it is, we go to the gates of hell again and again and again as we've done throughout the history of this great land.  And in spite of the way our war ended, 98 percent of us said, "I'd do it again.''

You are going to hear a lot of talk about our great success. I'm here because the Chapter 49 guys said, "You get your butt to St. Louis.'' I entered the service from St. Louis as a 17-year-old kid, so it's a special place to me. But I'm worried. I don't see seven guys who want to be President here. I don't see a President and a Vice President who want to get reelected. I don't see Congressmen and Senators, all running to be reelected. I don't see them here.

They went to the gay rights group two weeks ago. All but three went to the NAACP. All of them went to the United Jewish Appeal. But they are not here. Why aren't they here? It's not their fault, it's ours. We wave that flag, and that flag means a lot to me. That flag is not just our national symbol. It's so, so much more. That flag is our conscience. It's our soul. It's the shroud that covers those caskets. And that parade of flag-draped caskets, that's the only parade that counts in this nation.

How many of us went to Dover to welcome them home? How many? This government has decided one flag officer is all they want. I called up a bunch of my friends, and we said, "We want to be there."

I was told, "What happens if others want to come?''

"What,'' I said, "are you talking about?''

She said, "There could be 500 people.''

I said, "How about 500,000 people?''

She said, "We couldn't handle it.''

I said, "I think the families of those returning young men and women can handle it.''

That's our parade. But we've allowed that parade to be shut down, shut down at the gate. And there's another parade that you and I canceled. We canceled it because we are too busy. We canceled it because we don't have time. As a result, nobody comes to talk to us. Nobody cares what we think because we canceled that parade. And that's the parade of voters to the primary box.

Eleven percent of American voters show up on primary day. Think about it. Six percent voting on one side, 6 percent on the other, and that's giving them a bonus of one. Split in half, three percent picks the candidate. If we showed up, if we showed up en masse, if we showed up because we care, they'd all be here. They'd all be standing here saying, "Please, vote for me.  What do you need?" The most powerful secretary in the Cabinet would be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. And they wouldn't put their hand on the Bible and hold the gun and then cut our benefits.

So I'm here to challenge you to one thing. When you leave here, go back home and don't say, "I tried to get the voters out.'' When was "I tried'' good enough for us? When was "I tried'' good enough for us when nobody gave us a parade? When was "I tried'' good enough when the government said, "We don't have it in the budget to give you a damn memorial?'' We don't owe them anything. We built our own memorial. We gave our own parade. Now, we're going to lead that parade to the ballot box.

I don't care if you're liberal, conservative, Protestant, Jewish, anything. I don't care where you come from. I want you to vote. I want you to take your wives, your sons, your daughters, your mothers, your fathers, and you have them vote. It doesn't matter what they do. But if we could just get 20 percent of the eligible voters, every pundit would be wrong. They would be wrong, except to say, "Damn, what happened? Those Vietnam vets did it again.''

Just before we went into Iraq, I was privileged to talk to 101st Airborne, NCOs and officers. I didn't find any of those men saying, "Hey, let's go to war.'' Every one of them said, "Why are we going? You tell me why we're going, and we'll kick ass, take names, and we'll be home. But I don't want to go until someone else makes up their mind. I want this nation committed. I want the world committed. And then turn us loose.''

About a week later, I had the privilege to sit and listen to Secretary Wolfowitz at a dinner honoring Medal of Honor recipients. I was sitting next to him and I said, "Mr. Secretary, I have three requests. First, before you send anybody into Iraq, take the time to create a finite mission.''

"What's that?''

"We learned in Vietnam a meaningful objective is specific, it's finite, it has a tool of
measurement, and it has a suggestion of a course of action that you can succeed. Do that.''

He said, "Too tough.''

I thought, "What - to think or to die?''

I said, "I have a second request for you.''

He said, "What's that?''

I said, "It's simple. $1.3 million was not enough for a New York City fireman or a policeman who gave his life on September 11th. And $6,000 and an opportunity to buy $250,000 of your own damn insurance is totally inadequate for a man or a woman in the uniform of the United States who gives their life for their country. How about self-insuring and giving every person who dies in the uniform a half-million dollars so their family lives well?''

He said, "That's too expensive.''

I said, "Then I'm going to live up to another vow I gave some guys. It's not very expensive. It's pretty simple. Every night 120 Americans go to sleep surrounded by 100,000 bad guys. It's a place called the Monastery on the Korean DMZ. They don't get hazardous duty pay, only $147.50 a month--120 guys. It can't be that much. But it explains to their families why they are there, why their families can't visit, why when you want to go see them you go from checkpoint after checkpoint after checkpoint, why it's too dangerous for a USO show. Just $147.50.''

He said, "Too difficult.'''

I said, "I wish you luck on your speech.''

The next night I had the privilege of seeing Secretary Rumsfeld. He was giving a speech during Intrepid Fleet Week. Arnold Fisher was trying desperately to raise enough money to give $10,000 to each wife or child left behind, the family left behind for a killed in action. The day they are notified, a check arrives, certified, no questions asked. Just, here's $10,000 to pay the rent and do what you've got to do. He put half a million of his own money in there. Had his cousin put another half million and we raised another $350,000. We are trying to raise $3 million. But we can't do it.

"Support the troops'' is fine, but how about giving us some money to give their families? Just a few shekels so they don't worry. "Sorry, I'm busy, I gave at the office.'' You want to help somebody? Help Arnold Fisher raise that money so these kids left behind have something. So Arnold stands up in the middle of the dinner, and he says, "As the Gold Star mother said, Mr. Secretary, 'Great speech.' But I remember listening to some veterans--Vietnam men--when they had the parade in New York. They said, 'We're looking for the day there is no more war.' We're not looking for war.''

I thought, "My God, in a room with two thousand people, the host asked the Secretary of Defense who's been bragging about all his wars, 'How about backing off and how about letting the kids defend this land? Let's not look for fights. Let's look for peace.' '' I thought, "What a courageous man it takes to do that.'' And he was a corporal--Korean War--and until about five years ago, didn't tell anybody because no one cared.

So I saw Secretary Rumsfeld that night. I said, "Mr. Secretary, I'm Paul Bucha.''

He said, "I know. You have three questions.''

"And what did Wolfowitz do with my request for $147.50?''

"We're pulling off the DMZ.''

So, seriously, I really appeal to you. We are building Fisher Houses. Why? Because we think people at veterans hospitals and military hospitals should be able to be with their loved ones--not if they can afford it, but because they should be, period. We're building them all over. We're building another one in Tripler in Hawaii. We've got two in Landstuhl in Germany. The reason for that is, in the old days they had hospitals everywhere. Now, by God, you're killed or wounded east of India, you're going to Tripler; west of India, you're going to Landstuhl. So you need homes there where the families can stay.

We're building them at the VA hospitals as fast as we can raise the money. We also are raising the Falling Heroes Fund. We're trying. Try to help us on that. But do not leave this hall accepting and tolerating the indifference shown toward this gathering. Leave here angry. Leave here insulted and committed to make a difference. Get those Legion halls, VFW halls, Amvet halls, DAV halls, and VVA centers buzzing for the next primary day. Have those phones buzzing. Give up the drink on that day. Don't have a party. Work your asses off as if it's an ambush and get the people out. Let's get Americans out exercising the franchise we thought we were fighting for.

And if we do that, that's when they'll deliver on their commitments. They don't deliver because we beg: They give you a slap on the back. When you leave the door, they slash the budget. And if you say anything, they reply, "You're not supporting our troops.'' So when you leave here today, leave inspired, leave angry, leave committed. It's a difficult task. You've tried, but it hasn't work. But nobody told us they'd build us a monument, and nobody told us they'd give us a parade.

We did it once. We can do it again.

I have ten men whose names are carved on the black wall in Washington. Ten guys that there isn't a day that goes by in my life when I don't wonder what I could have done to bring them back. Delta Company was formed at the 101st. I was the first man in it. I was given the clerks and the jerks from the stockades in all the headquarters companies.

I had a few very smart guys and a whole lot of mean guys. I remember thinking, "My God, what a group to go to war with.'' They, unfortunately, had me as company commander, Stanford Business School background. They got the short stick; I got the long one. The only thing I had to do was to bring them back, and I failed. So when I think things are tough, and I think, "God, I can't do it,'' I think what those men would do to have my problems.

What would they give to have problems paying the mortgage? What would they give to say, "Jeez, I've lost my job''? Just to have a second chance at life. So I'm begging: Leave here committed to make a difference, not content with what we've got, committed and demanding what we're entitled to and more. Those kids in the back of this auditorium, they were medevac people in the Gulf. They flew from Iraq to Kuwait, brought the bodies out, brought out the injured who in other wars would be dead. They bring home the wounded, and then we don't report the wounded. They brought them back.

We must commit ourselves so that those kids know as they fly their adrenaline-pumping missions in service to us, that if something happens, their families will be taken care of. And no duplicitous politicians of any party standing up and waving a damn flag will cut the budget for those who make that flag solid.

I thank you for the privilege of being with you. I thank you for what you're doing for my men. I'm alive today because of Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Chinamen, most of them draftees, dumb enough to jump out of an airplane for a lousy $55. They are entitled to what we promised them, and you're all that they've got. I'm humbled to be near you. I'm proud to be able to claim to be one of you. On behalf of my men, thank you for what you do for this country.

[Shouts from the hall: Put your medal back on.]


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