By Jenna Purcell
City on a Hill Press Reporter
In the summer of 1967, Sgt. George Skakel began writing to City on a Hill Press (CHP) from the treacherous frontlines of the Vietnam War.
A former UC Santa Cruz student, Skakel was drafted against his will after his freshman year and forced to put his education on hold. Deeply opposed to the war, and having seriously considered jail time or fleeing to Canada before accepting his fate, he found refuge in correspondence with fellow classmates at UCSC. Many UCSC students avidly followed Skakel’s faithful series of letters as they graced CHP each week, opening many eyes to the horrors of war.
Skakel was set to finish his tour of duty at the end of April 1968, with a discharge expected a few months later in June. But on March 6, 1968, he was killed in action while leading a squad in Quang Tri, a northern region of Vietnam.
Forty years later, James Clark, a former UCSC literature major, politics minor and CHP reporter, withdrew from the campus at the end of his sophomore year in 2008 to pursue a career of combat correspondence. This position represents a highly respected branch of the U.S. Marine Corps, requiring correspondents to bridge the dual roles of journalist and soldier.
While many changes can be seen in Santa Cruz and the nation since the Vietnam era, the demand for brave young people yearning to fill combat correspondent positions remains as high as ever.
In the years that George served as an unofficial correspondent for CHP, the media served to bring the war into the homes of the American people. Many Vietnam War journalists took on the task of closing an assumed credibility gap between the media and the military.
This sudden drop in the public’s confidence occurred following a surprise attack by the Viet Cong known as the Tet Offensive, during an agreed cease-fire for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet.
Army Major Robert T. Jordan, a retired combat correspondent who served in Vietnam and now teaches at an Army information school, said the Tet Offensive caused widespread feelings of shock and tension to settle over the American public in ways the war had not yet seen.
“In Vietnam, there was actually a lot of support toward the beginning of the war,” Jordan said. “The Tet Offensive changed that. Even though the United States was victorious, and the Viet Cong was severely decimated, the U.S. media portrayed it as a great defeat for the U.S. military. We lost the confidence of the American people.”
Skakel’s letters brought this sense of lost confidence to the forefront. His sister, former UCSC student Nancy Skakel, said that her brother’s expressed animosity over the war fueled a productive purpose.
“George felt the war was a political and moral mistake,” Nancy Skakel said. “Part of the reason George wanted to correspond through the paper was because he wanted to do anything he could to encourage young men not to submit to the draft, and not to be swayed by the propaganda.”
While present tensions between the media and the military have seen downgrades since the Vietnam War, new problems within that relationship face each new generation. Today, advanced communication technology represents a sector of news media that some, like Jordan, see as too advanced for our own safety, especially when it comes to military issues.
“Now with 24/7 communication, everything is instant and accessible,” Jordan said. “Anyone can make a blog with information from our side or the other side, and have free access to release it.”
Although this instantaneous communication makes news coverage of our country’s two overseas wars faster and more accurate, Jordan said that it brings a dangerous potential for manipulation.
“This is an ideological war targeted at the hearts and minds of people. Insurgents are using propaganda and distorted images of the truth to sway people,” said Jordan, noting that images of injured babies, dead bodies or elderly people at known explosion sites have been distributed, in some cases, to give the public false portrayals of U.S. brutality.
“Because of this, [Marine Corps] Public Affairs now has three audiences,” Jordan continued. “There’s the external audience, which is the American public, the internal audience, or military personnel and their families, and now a third audience, which is the enemy. That’s one of the main differences since Vietnam. We now have reporters on both sides of the fence.”
This addition of “the enemy” as a spectator has come to mean increased responsibility and expectations for combat correspondents. The more effort the enemy puts into defacing the U.S. military, the more pressure there is for correspondents to present the truth to the public.
Despite difficult and altogether new challenges facing combat correspondents today, Clark views his prospective duties as bearing some resemblance to the Vietnam-era role of soldier-journalists to bring human representations of war into American homes.
“What I like best about combat correspondence is that it serves as a window into the lives of everyday service members,” Clark said. “It shows the real, human aspects of the military, instead of just nameless officials. It puts people in their shoes, gives them faces, and makes them more than just numbers. I wanted to pursue this so I could give a face to service members, give credit where credit was due.”
Clark, currently stationed at Maryland’s Fort George G. Meade Army base, said that although he left in the middle of his Santa Cruz experience, he owes much of his success to time spent as a part of the UCSC campus.
“I think it was the open-minded and passionate culture at Santa Cruz that led me to pursue becoming a combat correspondent,” Clark said. “[The] campus really encourages you to be passionate about things, embrace those passions, and then go out and do it. That’s one of the greatest things about UCSC — I was at one of the most liberal colleges in the country, and now I’m [in the military]. I think that’s a real testament to how unique Santa Cruz is.”
Current UCSC student Joel Inman felt a similar military tug as a young adult. After initially wanting to follow an academic track post-high school, Inman was inspired by the threat of terrorist activities to join the Navy, serving as an operations specialist from 2000 to 2004.
“Terrorism was becoming more of an issue. There were fewer good guys,” Inman said. “I wanted to make a change and I thought maybe I could go to school or do charity, but I decided to go straight to the problem and join the military. I wanted to be part of a positive foreign policy.”
During his service, Inman was deployed to the Persian Gulf twice. Post-military, though, Inman’s yearning for academia led him to UCSC, where he enrolled in 2005.
“I had always planned to eventually go to college,” Inman said. “I had tried out for the SEALS program, but started asking myself, ‘What do we really do? Is this what we’re really expecting of ourselves?’ I didn’t know it at the time, but these are the sort of questions that philosophers ask of themselves. So instead of becoming an officer, I decided to go to school where I could study philosophy.”
Despite taking an unusual route through school, Inman never regretted his decision to put higher education on momentary hold. In fact, Inman said his time spent in the military was essential to his successes at UCSC, among them a philosophy degree he expects to complete in June.
“I am so grateful for my military experience,” Inman said. “I don’t think I would have had the sophistication to really appreciate college right out of high school.”
When asked how, as a former Navy serviceman, he was received by a UCSC student body sometimes characterized as war-hating, hemp-wearing and dreadlocked, Inman sighed and gave a slight chuckle.
“You learn very quickly that it’s not the first thing to say when you meet someone,” he said.
Even with “Free Tibet” and Obama posters adorning most buildings on campus, the modern-day liberal activism of UCSC is foiled by the original hippies and flower children of Vietnam-era Santa Cruz.
Like Inman many years after him, Skakel felt the weight of his enlistment in the UCSC students he left behind.
“I fear returning to America … because of the dishonor, the quake in confidence my fickle behavior has generated,” Skakel wrote in a July 1967 letter to CHP. “I told a lot of people that I wouldn’t fight and now I am and that’s a hell of a thing to go back to. … If I survive this mess, I will go back to UCSC and try to pick up where I left off a year ago. Because of the way I have mismanaged this whole thing, it will be harder back at UCSC. Yet, as an informant, I can find a sense of service in giving UCSC guys the straight dope from one who knows.”
Nancy Skakel said that her brother’s astuteness and dedication to learning helped him to have a significant impact on those who read his letters.
“George had always been a very avid student,” Nancy said. “When he was in Vietnam, he was very anxious to get back and pick up his education. He was very ambitious. … [The letters] were not so much a personal thing, but an attempt to create something with a lasting impact.”
Skakel graduated six months ahead of his high-school class, his sister explained, and spent the next year and a half traveling the world. Because of this lapse in his education Skakel was drafted, due to his not having followed “normal educational progress.”
Don GerBracht, Skakel’s childhood neighbor and self-described “blood brother,” explained that Skakel exhibited qualities of leadership and autonomy from an early age.
“George was exceptional,” GerBracht said. “He was so independent and free-thinking, and really ahead of his time. I remember in sixth grade, when we all first heard about Sputnik, George got a bunch of us together and said, ‘Somebody’s gotta build this rocket. And if [the government] won’t do it, dammit, we will.’”
Rocket science never surfaced as Skakel’s calling, but the same energy GerBracht saw in him then re-emerged with Skakel’s desire to present UCSC students with the truth about Vietnam.
However, his letters did, in fact, have a significant effect on Santa Cruz students, said Blair Cooper, fellow UCSC student and close friend of Skakel’s.
“His published letters deeply affected those on campus.” Cooper said. “George conveyed the idiocy, futility and brutality of war. He described sleeping in the mud, [moving] through the jungles, killing ‘gooks’ — the camaraderie, the fear. I can’t see how his view of reality wouldn’t affect anyone who read it.”
While every generation of combat correspondents must deal with new issues in new ways, there nonetheless exists a vital element of continuity in the job, spanning each and every American era, said Jack Paxton, executive director of the United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondence Association (USMCCCA).
The USMCCCA itself exemplifies this fact, priding itself on being the only organization in the armed forces that includes both former and active members of the military. It allows former combat correspondents to provide the wisdom of experience to active correspondents, creating a unique relationship.
“Tradition is a very important part of being a Marine. Much of what current combat correspondents learn, we learned the hard way back in ’51 and ’52,” Paxton said.
Jordan noted that regardless of age or experience, top correspondents share certain personal traits.
“All good combat correspondents have a spirit of adventure and a great sense of patriotism,” Jordan said. “You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of comforts — no running water, no utilities, going weeks or months without a shower or with holes in your underwear.”
Fortunately, potential correspondents with this drive and passion are not hard to come by. Jordan said that the majority of his students at the Public Affairs Leadership Department of Fort Meade’s Defense Information School are ambitious, with a healthy dose of curiosity.
“Of the students I’ve seen, the combat correspondents are always a bright, inquisitive bunch, and most of them would be successful at anything they did,” Jordan said. “They have that thirst to get into someone’s head, see what they see, feel what they feel, and translate that to the public. They understand their role, that they have a duty to protect the public’s right to information — and ultimately, an unabridged truth.”
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