AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq --
From the battle at Belleau Wood, where Marines earned the name Devil Dog, to the iconic image of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, Marine Corps history is embedded in every Marine from their initial training at boot camp and continues to provide inspiration to those who continue to serve. Some veterans of past wars, like Vietnam, are not only holding on to the memories of that time, but are also making new ones while they serve in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The company first sergeant for Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 46, 1st Sgt. Viriato B. Sena, is one of the few Vietnam veterans still left among the ranks of currently serving Marines.
Sena, who joined the Marine Corps in 1973, participated in the evacuation of Vietnam and is now deployed to Iraq during the responsible drawdown of U.S. forces and equipment in Iraq. The military drawdown from Iraq has been noted to be the largest operation of its kind since Vietnam.
In April 1975, Sena, who was attached to Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, participated in the evacuation of Saigon, Vietnam while working as part of a security team aboard the ships USS Midway and USS Enterprise.
“There were 10 of us, all combat engineers,” Sena said. “Our function was to make sure that Vietnamese civilians brought nothing on to the ship that would jeopardize the mission, such as weapons or grenades.”
Once on the ships, the civilians were taken to refugee camps in the Philippines Island.
Sena then became part of a team of Marines who helped set up more refugee camps for the Vietnamese civilians and provide security for displaced South Vietnamese nationals.
“I was only 19 at the time and it was a hell of an experience,” Sena remembered. “It has been a drastic change from those days to now.”
Sena also noticed physical changes since first joining the corps 36 years ago. While reminiscing, Sena, a reservist out of Providence, R.I., recalled his recent visit to his very first duty station at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“I remember being back at Camp Lejeune right before this deployment,” he said. “I was driving on base with a young Marine and we passed by what used to be an open squad bay. Now the area is well built up.”
Camp Lejeune, which was a tobacco barn, farm house and temporary tent cities back in 1941, has grown to a 246-square mile military training facility, according to the official Camp Lejeune web site. Today the base boasts 11 miles of beach, capable of supporting amphibious operations. There are 78 live-fire ranges, 98 maneuver areas, 34 gun positions, 540 tactical landing zones and a state-of-the-art Military Operations in Urban Terrain training facility.
“Things have changed so much since I was stationed there when I was active duty,” Sena said. “Who would have thought I would be back there on the base that I was on in 1973 and it’s now 2009.”
Now as the TS Co. first sergeant, Sena is leading his Marines through the responsible drawdown process. Their missions include retrograde of gear and equipment from Al Asad and other small forward operating bases in western Iraq, resupply and general service support to the FOBs.
Sena used his knowledge of the evacuation of Vietnam to prepare his Marines for their Iraq mission in support of the drawdown of Marine forces and gear.
Four months ago, Sena gave a class to the battalion about the difference between the evacuation of Vietnam and the current responsible drawdown of U.S. forces and equipment.
One of these differences is the speed at which U.S. forces are withdrawing. During the Vietnam War, as soon as the fight was over U.S. troops were on their way home.
However, troops in Iraq have stayed past the fight to assist the Iraqis in rebuilding their country and training their military forces.
“[A contrast of the current] drawdown and Operation Frequent Wind is we’re taking our time because we’re not forced to pull out all at once as we were in the fall of Saigon,” he said.
Back in the states, Sena works as a Lt. Supervisor with the Department of Veterans Affairs Police in Boston, Mass. He has served a total of 23 years of active duty in the Marine Corps.
“The Marine Corps has made me a better person and has guided me in the right direction,” he said. “I love the responsibility that the Marine Corps instills in me to take care of my junior Marines.
“I’m going to stick around for the Marines until they kick me out,” Sena joked. “I have a great bunch of Marines in my company. They are the future of the Marine Corps.”