On the afternoon of November 1st, 1969, 1st platoon of Charlie Troop, 10th Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division, was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces. Charlie Troop’s Commander, Captain Timothy H. Donovan (Norwich University class of 1962), instinctively ordered his remaining soldiers to counterattack and simultaneously maneuvered his headquarters element into the heart of the action. As the battle unfolded, a North Vietnamese sniper (waiting patiently in a “spider hole”) managed to squeeze off a round from his AK-47 that would forever change the face of the United States Military.
The bullet entered through the seam of Captain Donovan’s flack jacket, broke several ribs, burst his left lung, and pierced his pulmonary artery before riddling its way down his spinal column and lodging itself in his spleen. A few hours (and several heroes) later, an Army surgeon stood over a bloody M.A.S.H. operating table and declared that it was “too late for this one.” His plans changed when Donovan (with two collapsed lungs) reached up and grabbed him by the throat with his right hand. In that instance, the fate of countless service men and women changed forever.
Colonel Timothy H. Donovan (born in Bristol, Connecticut, and thankfully rejected by the United States Coast Guard Academy) is a 1962 graduate of Norwich University. A member of the prestigious Mountain Cold Weather Rescue Team, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity (back in the day when NU had fraternities), and Kilo Company (an affiliation that, after conducting this interview, I’m convinced he’s most proud of), Colonel Donovan is a mentor and source of inspiration to countless Norwich grads. In addition, he also taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he trained cadets with last names like Petraeus, McCrystal, and Odierno.
Straight to the chase – Colonel Donovan’s career (and life) should have ended on that table in Viet Nam. Instead, he left indelible marks on the entire military over the next twenty four years. Do you like the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank? Colonel Donovan’s fingerprints are all over it. Do you have an appreciation for Special Operations Command (SOCOM)? Colonel Donovan, at the behest of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (with the personal backing of President Ronald Reagan), took it from concept to reality in one year. As a warrior-scholar, he also contributed several chapters to a textbook on the U.S. Civil War (The American Civil War, Avery Press, Wayne, N.J., 1987 T.H. Donovan, et al). Not bad for a soldier with “permanent disabilities.”
Colonel D’s father (Timothy H. Donovan, Sr.) served honorably in World War I with the 4th Infantry Division. When he returned, his wife (Mary Donovan), presented him with a hand-sewed replica of the 4th ID Unit Patch as a keepsake. Fifty years later, upon learning of his son’s assignment to the same unit, he blew the dust off of his padlocked foot locker, retrieved the patch (a modest piece of stitching on plain, olive drab cloth) and passed it along to his son (seen on the right, moments before donating it to the 4th Infantry Division Museum). Ironically, and unbeknownst to Colonel Donovan until the formal ceremony, the Norwich class of 1993 would eventually honor him by including the 4th Infantry Division unit patch (his patch) on its ring.
Interview Part I
RHM: You once told me about a conversation you had with your South Vietnamese counterpart where he expressed optimism that the war would “be over soon.” But when you pressed him for more information, he replied that “soon” meant another 15 or 20 years. Clearly, many other cultures have more patience than Americans. Do you see any parallels to Viet Nam and the current conflicts in Iraq and especially Afghanistan?
Colonel Donovan: Actually I said to my counterpart, Capt Dung (pronounced Young) in the summer of 1966, “at this rate the war will be over soon.” He answered “yes, in maybe 20 or 30 years,” without a smile; dead serious.
We Americans seem to think that other countries are just like us with a central government elected by the people, etc. In Afghanistan especially, that is far from the reality. That part of the world is tribal and culturally quite different. The ruling framework hasn’t changed in centuries, if not eons. The Afghan tribes aren’t even similar, speaking several languages, and with different mores, customs, and religions. It is an extremely complex region.
Vietnam had many different sects and religions and cultures, but nothing like Afghanistan. For centuries, the Afghans have seen foreign armies come and go. For the US and NATO to prevail, we must recognize that this is going to be slow and deliberate work, one village, one province, one region at a time. It will be done by teaching native people how to have a better way of life; by teaching them how to have security in order to protect their families. It’s more teaching than fighting. I think that the common human denominator (security and pursuit of happiness) is the way to success in Afghanistan. Sounds like a job for lots of SOF (Special Operations Forces) types.
Instead of having lawyers assigned to planning staffs, we need cultural anthropologists.
RHM: Do you think we’re doing enough for our returning veterans when it comes to health care and educational benefits?
Colonel Donovan: I think the new GI Bill will help a great deal. Finding jobs for returning veterans should be a top priority for everyone. The injuries in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom are different than in other wars. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is more common because of the type of IED’s used. Health care for veterans must be in place and protected. Remember, that in World War II almost 20% of the country was in uniform fighting the enemy, and all at home were in support. If you were too young to join, you were a plane spotter or a bicycle messenger; too old you were an Air Raid Warden or a Civil Defense volunteer. Today, less than 1% of our country is in uniform. We owe them an awful lot.
In Part II of Meet Colonel Timothy H. Donovan, we discussed the fate of the North Vietnamese sniper who shot him, which aspects of national security keep him up at night, and Norwich’s role in the 21st Century. Sign up on the right-hand side if you’d like an email alert once it’s published.
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