When Tom Lang enrolled in the Marine Corps platoon leader course at San Diego State University in 1963, the Vietnam War was underway but United States involvement was still minimal.
He graduated just in time for the Tet Offensive.
Lang, a Rancho Santa Fe Association director, served as a platoon leader and company commander in South Vietnam from October 1967 to October 1968. Lang's units, part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, saw heavy combat and lost 16 comrades in that one year.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about Vietnam in some way," Lang said, who received a bronze star medal for valor.
The company holds a reunion every year to coincide with the Marine Corps birthday, the day before Veteran's Day.
"To go through a traumatic thing such as combat, you have an unbreakable bond," Lang said. "There is a lot of camaraderie, a lot of compassion for those who could not be there."
This year, about 100 servicemen and family members will convene in Oceanside from Nov. 7 to 10. Lang said he is looking forward to sharing "war stories" and going to Camp Pendleton to talk with younger veterans and active duty marines.
Unlike when he returned from war, Lang wants these volunteers to know how much he appreciates their service.
"Living this beautiful California lifestyle, it's easy to forgot that for 24 hours a day they are out there doing something for us," Lang said, who after completing his service at Camp Pendleton, worked for IBM Corporation and ran his own business leasing executive centers.
While the Vietnam War was controversial, Lang said he would serve all over again because of the leadership skills he learned and the phenomenal men he served with.
"It made me a better person," Lang said. "It gave me a different perspective on life; I can weigh what sometimes people think is important with what really is important - living life, family and friends."
Another longtime Rancho Santa Fe veteran is James Hewette, who served in the 509th Airborne Brigade from 1964 to 1966. He was stationed in Germany for contingency missions, but did not see combat. He completed his four years of service working with the Army Corp of Engineers.
Hewette, a structural engineer, comes from a long line of servicemen dating back to the War of 1812 and Civil War.
His father, James Hewette Senior, spent his career as in the U.S. Army, retiring a lieutenant cornel. During World War II, his first assignment was guarding Mount Soledad in La Jolla, which had a gun at the time. Throughout the war, he led the 7th Infantry Division on four amphibious assaults in the South Pacific, including Aleutian Island, Kwajilan, Letay Gulf and Okinawa.
Band of brothers
Hewette's uncle, Charles Hewette, was a first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division; one of the storied "Band of Brothers" that parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. Charles Hewette received accommodation for inspiring his platoon while leading an assault on Bridge No. 7, one of the bridges on Hells Highway depicted in the film "A Bridge Too Far."
For Hewette, Veteran's Day is time to recognize his own service, but honor his father and uncle.
"I think of myself as a bridge from their generation, America's Greatest Generation, and what they fought for," Hewette said. "Not only America's freedom at the time but also for the preservation of traditional Christian family values that are the cornerstone of America's strength and democracy."
The Hewette family tradition continues with James Hewette III, who was a U.S. Navy carrier pilot, and remains a lieutenant commander in the Navy reserves.