Vietnam War hero pays it forward by inspiring future leaders

Retired Army Brig. Gen. John “Doc” Bahnsen, Jr. isn’t shy about his love for America or his willingness to fight for her.

“We’ve got a great country — the greatest country on earth. And some things are worth fighting for,” the decorated 81-year-old Vietnam war veteran told “If our country’s in danger, then I think we fight. And then, by God, I’ll join the fight. And I think I should go to the front of the line, too.”

Bahnsen’s “lead from the front” philosophy served him well during his two combat tours in Vietnam.

“You have to set the example on a daily basis and take the action necessary to kill the enemy,” Bahnsen said. “You don’t have to be the leader every time. But, by golly, be prepared to join the front.”

Half a century after his service in Vietnam, Bahnsen continues to receive honors, including this year’s Distinguished Graduate Award from West Point. But rather than just look back on his own celebrated military career, the retired brigadier general likes to pay it forward.

Each year, Bahnsen awards a pistol to the captain of the West Point rugby team and to a distinguished graduating cadet at his other alma mater, Marion Military Institute. His focus is not on academics, but promoting combat leadership and victory.

The pistols are intended “to motivate kids to serve, and to serve at the tip of the spear,” Bahnsen explained. “Very important because not everybody wants to do it. I never have found a crowd at the front line.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Bahnsen does not take combat duty lightly. He witnessed dozens of young men make the ultimate sacrifice in an unpopular war.

“Forty-four soldiers were killed under my command,” Bahnsen said. “That’s the tragedy of Vietnam. For every day of my life, it’ll be Memorial Day for those 44 soldiers.”

Bahnsen said the main lesson the U.S. should learn from Vietnam is to “have an end game.”

“If you’re gonna attack somebody, go with a mission of winning. Winning!” Bahnsen explained. “If you don’t have an end game, don’t go to war. Don’t start something you can’t finish.”