Our new national security adviser, John Bolton, was born on the same day in 1948 as Weyman Cook, Jerry Miller, and Richard Lassiter, whose own chances for future achievements ended when they were killed in Vietnam.
Their common birthday was Nov. 20, number 185 in the 1969 draft lottery, which was based on date of birth and ended student deferments—such as the one Bolton had until then enjoyed at Yale. He might well have been called up, as the draft went up to 195, but he managed to get a spot in the Maryland National Guard and then a local Army reserve unit. The Guard and the Reserves had long waiting lists, as they offered a way to avoid being sent to Vietnam.
“I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy,” Bolton wrote in his Yale 25th reunion class book. “I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.”
Instead, Bolton went to Yale Law School, interning in the summer for the stridently pro-war Vice President Spiro Agnew, who told everybody that the fight in Vietnam was progressing far better than the effete media suggested. Bolton later served at no peril in the Justice Department and the State Department, all the while being quick to recommend the use of military force. He was an ardent supporter of the Iraq War and has gained a reputation for being ever ready, almost eager to send others into combat.
We will never know what Cook, Miller, and Lassiter might have accomplished. Cook had seemed like he might be one of the lucky ones after a helicopter he was in went down in Vinh Long on March 6, 1969. The married 20-year-old from Corinth, Mississippi, miraculously survived and stepped away unhurt. He could have just stood there with his whole young life before him.
But a number of comrades were trapped in the burning wreckage and in his last minutes he demonstrated that he possessed the stuff of greatness. The citation of the Soldier’s Medal he was subsequently awarded “for exceptionally valorous actions while serving as crew chief of a UH-1D helicopter” reads:
“The aircraft developed flight difficulties and crashed to the ground, bursting into flames upon impact. He managed to remove himself from the helicopter unharmed. As soon as he realized that the others were still trapped inside the burning aircraft, he rushed into the flames and pulled one of the survivors from the wreckage. As a result of his heroic action, Specialist Fourth Class Cook was severely burned and later succumbed to these fatal wounds.”
Cook was buried in Oak Hill Church of Christ Cemetery in Alcorn County, Mississippi. He was preceded in death by 19-year-old Cpl. Jerry Miller, who died on Sept. 9, 1968, in Binh Thuan province.
Miller had previously been wounded and knocked unconscious by an enemy rocket. He awoke to see that a number of his comrades were more seriously injured and he radioed for assistance. He insisted that the responding medics help the others first and pitched in to assist despite his own wound. He was subsequently awarded a Bronze Star, but he declined to accept it.
“He believed you only get out of life what you put into it,” his mother, Jean Cornett, was later quoted saying. “He just didn’t think he had done more than anyone else would have.”
A month later, Miller was on patrol when somebody in his squad failed to see a trip wire. The explosion killed Miller instantly. He is buried in Resthaven Memory Gardens Cemetery in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Another soldier born on Nov. 20, 1948, was a hero of another kind even before he was drafted. PFC Richard Lassiter, of Norfolk, Virginia, was the oldest of nine children raised by a single mother after their father deserted the family and moved to New York. Lassiter had stepped in to become the man of the house when not much more than a youngster.
“He was our protector,” his sister, Pauline Antomattei, told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “He was the father I didn’t have.”
She added, “He was strong, not just physically strong, but strong within the family and community. We depended on him.”
He was nicknamed “Joe Nose” because of his prominent nose. The more notable bigness about him was the magnitude of his presence, which turned sparkling with what his sister calls “a 100-watt smile.” He seemed larger than life, not only a man, but also a man to emulate although only a teen.
“To see him in person, he was formidable,” his sister recalled. “He was beloved by men and women. Women loved him, the guys wanted to be him and wanted to be his friend.”
Then came an induction notice from the Norfolk draft board. He headed off to Vietnam predicting he would not survive to see his mother and eight siblings again.
“He actually said, ‘I’m not going to come back home,’” the sister remembered. “Of course, everybody said, ‘No, no, you will.’”
On May 5, 1969, Lassiter’s unit embarked on a patrol in Quang Ngai province. He advised a comrade named Don DePina not to “walk point,” as taking the lead was called.
“He was the one who told me to take the ‘pig’ [walk further back], where I was less likely to be shot instead of walking point,” DePina would say in a remembrance posted online as part of a Virginia veterans project.
Lassiter himself then took the lead.
“He was walking the point when we were ambushed,” DePina would recall.
Lassiter’s sister, Pauline, was 11 at the time. She remembers being taken out of school and coming home to see soldiers were there, talking to her mother.
“I remember my mother breaking down and everybody was crying,” she told The Daily Beast.
Lassiter was buried at Hampton National Cemetery in Hampton, Virginia. His mother sought to keep going however she could.
“Right after Richard died, she took up word puzzles,” Pauline recalled. “Some people go to therapy. She would do these word puzzles and would zone out.”
The oldest sister, Virginia, was 15 at the time. She subsequently joined the Air Force. She became pregnant at 19 after her first sexual experience and chose to have the baby. She went into labor at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, which bungled a spinal tap and failed to have a crash cart on hand to revive her. She was left in a perpetual coma, paralyzed, unable to speak.
The mother had lost her oldest son and now had all but lost her oldest daughter.
“They were just like the soul,” Pauline recalled. “They were it… It’s like the family died.”
Virginia’s baby girl did survive and is now a CPA with a master’s degree, raising two kids of her own in Chicago.
And Richard Lassiter’s friend from Vietnam returned home to serve as the director of veteran’s services in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from 1999 to 2002. He recorded the remembrance of Lassiter that was posted online.
“Richie was my friend,” DePina said. “I will always remember Richie as my bother. I love you and your name is spoken by me every day.”
DePina continued to help combat vets however he could while going to work as a cab driver. He was murdered in a robbery by two teens, aged 18 and 16, in November of 2015. He had hoped aloud in his remembrance of Lassiter that he would be reunited with his friend when his own time came.
“God bless, and I will see you. Don.”
Others who were born on Nov. 20, 1948, who died in Vietnam include Heinrich Ruhlmann, Leonard Deinlein, Jorge Luis Mendez-Matos, and Rene Buller.
And John Bolton lives on to become our new super-hawk national security adviser. Neither he nor his office responded on Monday to a request for comment about a time when he faced actually being in a war.
Maybe he was too busy in the first official day of his latest achievement in a future such as was violently denied those other young men born on Nov. 20, 1948.
“They never got a chance,” Richard Lassiter’s sister, Pauline, told The Daily Beast.