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Marine general bids farewell, thankful for public support for his troops

September 5, 2009 | 12:11 pm


Sometimes there is a back story that underscores certain public events.

Take Friday's change-of-command ceremony at Camp Pendleton, where Lt. Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. assumed command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland (pictured above). Helland is retiring after 41 years in the military, taking to the open road with his wife, Pam, in a newly purchased recreational vehicle that he calls "our land yacht."

In his address to several hundred Marines, their families and civilian guests, Helland lavishly praised the public support given to his troops. Without that support, he suggested, the Marines' difficult missions in Iraq and Afghanistan might not be possible.

Earlier, in a private message to the 25,000 Marines and sailors of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Helland wrote that they should "take pride in the knowledge that your superb actions have brought continued security at home and that the people of this great nation stand with you." 

It helps to know that Helland is one of the last generals in the U.S. military who served in Vietnam.

He left the University of Minnesota in 1968 after three years and enlisted in the Army. He served three years with the Army Special Forces, including a combat tour in Vietnam. He fought beside the Montagnards, the mountain tribesmen known for their ferocity.

Helland is not a sentimentalist or given much to spinning anecdotes from his past. But his regret is palpable about how the U.S., in effect, abandoned the Montagnards. "We lied to them," he said in an interview. "We told them we'd never leave and then one day we disappeared."

Helland also remembers what happened when he returned, in uniform, to Minneapolis after serving in Vietnam.

At the civilian airport, people moved away from him as if he had done something disreputable or was about to break out in violence. At a cafe, people changed tables to put some distance between themselves and the newly returned soldier.

"No one said anything to me," Helland said.

He went back to college, got married, graduated and in 1973 enlisted in the Marine Corps, becoming a helicopter pilot.

The sense of being shunned by the citizens that he had been fighting to protect has stayed with Helland. Today's public, he said, can distinguish between the war and the warrior. Civic groups in southern Orange County and northern San Diego County have been particularly supportive of the troops.

"Night and day, night and day," Helland said when asked to compare his treatment with that of his troops when they return. "People have changed; maybe they feel a bit ashamed."

-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

Photo: Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland at Friday's ceremony. Credit: John Gastaldo / San Diego Union-Tribune