DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
Column 7

AMERICA'S FINEST

Recently I received a note from a veteran who had just spent three days out in the boonies with an infantry battalion. It read, "I'm mighty impressed with today's warriors. They're motivated, well-trained, STRAC (grunt jargon meaning military perfect and ready to jump into hell when duty calls) and ten times the soldiers that I served with in 1969."

In those few words, Sacramento's Mike Kelly, who had been away from soldiers since he got shot up in Vietnam, captured the spirit of today's warriors. America's defenders in 1993 are magnificent. I've been around our soldiers from Saipan in 1945 to Somalia in 1993, and on a lot of killing fields in between. The kids today are made up of the same steel and skills as their forefathers were at Bastogne, Chosan and Dak To.

I have watched these young warriors do their resolute thing all over the globe. Without question, they're the finest American combatants I've ever seen tote a rifle, make a bombing run or provide naval close support gun fire.

Their a matchless military force that, believes in doing "what you can do for your country" as JFK said. They're a throwback to a moral America of yesteryear, but they're a far different lot than those hard-drinking, womanizing, bar fighters that taught me the ABCs or the soldiering game.

To visit a military base today is like returning to the "Happy Days" of the Eisenhower era. Streets are clean, lawns are neat, drivers follow the rules and the soldiers are polite. Crime, drugs, AIDS, graffiti and violence are not part of their culture. Values of duty, honor, country and family are what, motivates them, rather than greed and self-interest.

They're also damned competent in their fighting skills, exactingly trained for whatever may come their way. That's why they won in Desert Storm with a first-round KO. That's why they accomplished the job in Somalia. too, despite bad press and a flawed mission. Their acts of heroism in that hellhole will be ones for the story books. I've never seen warriors operate under more dreadful conditions.

Our armed forces have changed drastically since that dispirited mob in Vietnam grudgingly served in the waning days of that bad war. Then, angry gangs in love beads were anti-everything. Fragging had replaced fighting, and "Screw you!" had replaced "All the way, sir!'

A lot of sweat and extraordinary effort in the part of dedicated military leaders caused this about-face. These leaders shaped the raw talent -- which the moms and dads of America produced and teachers and church leaders molded -- into one hell of a class act.

The guts of an army in not its brass or its hardware, but the quality of its people. Good people make good armies. Despite the rap for Tailhook, the men and women who serve America today are not into moronic excesses. Almost all are high school graduates, many noncoms have college under their pistol bells and almost all of the officers are college graduates. Not only are they smart and well-educated, They're lean, fit candidates for any Olympic squad.

Being a warrior today is tough duty. If they're not already deployed to some unexotic hot spot, they're training and getting ready to ship out to one. They're away on missions far more than they're at home. Marines are deployed on overseas operations two out of three years, and I have spoken to scores of soldiers who have been away from home five out of the last six Christmases.

On top of all this double time. They cope with poor pay and a post-Cold War world that has created great turbulence and uncertainty -- including a reduction in the size of our military forces.

When you get discouraged about where America is going, go visit a base or a fort. Talk to our smart, well-turned-out defenders. and you'll realize that they are our future and that things aren't all bad. Our warriors are an inspiration, and we should take pride, for they represent America at its finest.