Being a Warrior, Now and Then

Being a Warrior, Now and Then

Q&A with Lt. Col. Gulakowski: Reflections on Vietnam legacy.

Lt. Col. Denis Gulakowski of Burke is a retired Army officer who served more than 25 years. From November 1971 until November 1972, he did a tour of duty in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, he participated in several battles, one of which disrupted the North Vietnamese attempt to overrun areas of South Vietnam during the Easter Offensive (Nguyen Hue Campaign) of 1972. He has received the Silver Star Medal and the Bronze Star Medal, among many others, awarded by the United State Armed Forces. He and his wife, JoAnne, have two children. His son, Denis Joseph, is in federal law enforcement and his daughter, Karen Rowley, is an English teacher at Oakton High School with two daughters—Zoe and Piper.

Q: What was your homecoming from Vietnam like?

A: The antithesis of Americans’ response to today’s wars. When my son came back from Iraq in 2004, he traveled in uniform. People came up to him, shook his hand, thanked him and wished him well. One grateful American even bought him breakfast. When I came home, I changed into civilian clothes as soon as I could, so I wouldn’t be spat upon, called “baby killer” or have animal blood tossed on me.

Q: What do you think the legacy of Vietnam is for our country?

A: As Americans, we must all stand together for a common cause, even if we don’t understand or necessarily agree with it. In Stanley Karnow’s book “Vietnam, A History,” and the PBS TV series of the same name, based on the book, there is documented evidence from the North Vietnamese government that protests in the United States helped motivate the enemy forces and enabled them to continue the fight. We must recognize that the military is an implementing element of US Government policy; not the initiator of that policy. As soldiers, we do what we are ordered to.

Q: What does being a patriotic American mean to you?

A: I’ve been in many countries around the world; several of them third world—much of the population living in squalor. It helped me appreciate how great America is. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best there is by far. Americans are great people; caring, compassionate, generous and patriotic. As corny as it sounds, when I hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I get emotional—contrary to the macho image of a combat infantry officer.

Q: How do you celebrate Memorial Day?

A: I typically attend the Memorial Day ceremony in Burke Centre sponsored by VFW Post 5412 and supported by Boy Scout Troop 1345 and the BCC staff. I think of my two college roommates and several classmates who were killed in action in Vietnam.