Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Patriotism at Outpost Con Thien

In the history of warfare I find it interesting how seemingly insignificant places take on a momentous importance. Valley Forge, the Alamo, Gettysburg, and Bastogne became symbolic as bastions of American resolve. With or without strategic significance they were held regardless of the cost of life.

During the Vietnam War there was one such outpost just below the demilitarized zone, Con Thien. Con Thien, loosely translated, means “a place of angels.” The Marines who fought there understood no angels ever set foot on that hill. To the 9th Marines defending this position it was known as “Hell in a helmet.”

The heavy monsoon rains had turned the red earth into gruel. The mud was a yard deep and had the consistency of pudding. The outpost was the anchor of “Marine Alley”: Gio Linh, Dong Ha, Cam Lo, and Con Thien. These four Marine combat bases kept a watchful eye on the North Vietnamese Army. The enemy was determined to overrun Con Thien; the Marines were determined to stop them.

Con Thien played a significant part in the history of the Vietnam War. The firebase was in the news during the time it was under attack. Time and Life magazines wrote stories about the horrors they saw there. The base was under siege and received continuous bombardment from enemy heavy guns, and ground assaults from numerically superior forces. Regardless of Con Thien’s tactical significance, the outpost became symbolic of American resolve to stay the course of the Vietnam War.

The author of a Time Magazine article was impressed by the reverence shown by the Marines each morning as they raised the flag; consequently he titled his piece, “Patriotism is Alive and Well at Con Thien.”

So what’s my point?

I attend all the La Cañada High School boys’ and girls’ basketball games. I’m a true blue Spartan fan! Prior to the game the national anthem is played and I have to tell you there is a lackadaisical attitude during the anthem. I appreciate the fact that those present stand but many do not place their hand over their heart. To do so is a show of respect. The United States flag code states, “All present should stand at attention and place their right hand over their heart.”

Yeah! I realize it’s a minor thing, but patriotism is a component of citizenship and from my humble perspective patriotism is foundational.

Recently I was the project adviser to Vienna Murillo and Alexis Cordes’ Girl Scout Gold Award projects. Vienna’s project was the proper way to retire the American flag; Alexis’ project was the history and traditions of the flag. Their meticulous approach toward respecting the colors showed an understanding of the flag’s symbolism but also understanding the core components of democracy. These kids impressed me. Patriotism is alive and well in Troop 3531.

Back to my story about Outpost Con Thien. Each morning Marines would enthusiastically volunteer to raise the colors. Typically a bugler would play, “To the Colors,” during which Marines would hoist the flag while the color guard stood at attention and saluted. The North Vietnamese gunners would subsequently unleash everything they had. The Marines wondered why they never hit their targets. Apparently the monsoon rains altered enemy gun sights and curtailed the effectiveness of the gunpowder. My neighbor and buddy, Col. Trevor Kleineahlbrandt, a Marine artillery officer, will attest to the accuracy of my assumption.

When they play the national anthem at LCHS and I witness the prevalent lackadaisical demeanor of the fans, I think about those 20-year-old kids who risked their lives daily to pay homage to the flag. I understand it was a different time and place; but a long time ago, patriotism was alive and well at Outpost Con Thien.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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