Memorial Day 2019
‘I Get Very Emotional’:
Vietnam Vet Bruce Land is Avalon’s Memorial Day Speaker
By Dave Bontempo
Bruce Land with his wife, Bonnie, and two sons, Shaun and Devon.
Bruce Land during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
For Bruce Land, this is a Memorial Day with a magic number.
Years, that is. That’s a hefty recollection span for the Millville native and state Assemblyman who will be the guest speaker at Avalon’s Memorial Day celebration. Fifty denotes a flashback to 1969 and the start of his highly decorated Vietnam tour of duty. Land garnered two Bronze Star Medals and a Soldier’s Medal, serving in a volatile area with the 101st Airborne, a unit that performed brigade-sized air-assault operations to seize key terrain. Missions required the troops to engage opposing forces behind enemy lines in high-risk operations.
In some ways, it seems like yesterday that Land engaged in a mission he regarded as three distinct periods: being initially scared to death, accepting the danger, and becoming fearful again near the time of leaving. While Land did come home to author a prosperous postwar life, many of his comrades did not return. He remembers 18 of them being killed and 72 suffering injuries from a force of 130 during one combat period. On this holiday, commemorating the fallen, Land won’t simply speak about the importance of Memorial Day. He feels it.
“Any time I speak about the service in Vietnam, I get very emotional,” he says, “and I may be a little nervous speaking on Memorial Day. The memories flood back. I was in the DMZ. I think of the Vietnam Memorial now, and the wall, and panel 4 West. There are 18 guys on that panel that I know. There are times and places I think about over in Vietnam that still scare me.
“People often confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day, with the Veterans Day honoring anybody who served and Memorial Day being for those who didn’t make it. I am just grateful that I came back. The experience made me a better person and made me realize how sweet life is, how short it is. I learned values of responsibility and respect that were priceless.”
The experience opened new paths. From a career perspective, after dabbling with business marketing at Cumberland County College and working in a Vineland department store, Land made a bold change and began working for the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Land was assigned to the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg and South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton until his retirement in March 2008 as a captain.
Bruce Land (left in both photos) with Army buddy Tom Walsh.
On a personal realm, service strengthened ties with his father and his own awareness of family military service. Land’s grandfather had served in World War I and his father survived injuries in his World War II stint. That was hardly discussed, until Bruce came home. Now, he has a 1946 Life Magazine story that detailed a skin-graft procedure considered cutting edge for that time. Bruce’s dad, Harold, is mentioned in the story, he says, and the shared war memories forged a deeper bond between them.
“My dad did not speak to me much about the service, but we did talk about it after I came home from Vietnam,” he recalls. “I only saw my father cry twice. One was at the funeral when we lost my brother Richard to sudden infant death syndrome. I was about 6 years old. The second time I saw him shed a tear was the night before I was leaving for ’Nam.
“He said, ‘Son, remember, only the good die young. I’ll see you back here in about a year!’ That did help me.”
Before returning, Land served with distinction. While the Bronze Star Medals gained him a measure of notoriety, the Soldier’s Medal is rare. Few have won it, and fellow recipients include Colin Powell, long before he’d become the country’s Secretary of State. The Soldier’s Medal criteria involves the saving of another’s life at the risk of one’s own.
Land received his for assembling a group of soldiers to extinguish a threatening fire ignited by enemy troops.
“They were firing rockets into us and the ammo dump caught on fire,” he says. “It was close to where I was located in my bunker, so I grabbed a couple guys and we were able to get it out before it could spread. I was told we practically saved the whole base.”
Bruce Land with his wife and sons Shaun and Devon.
As this holiday descends, so does a reminder of war’s permanent price. As a former soldier, Land says he attended several funerals five years ago for colleagues whose exposure to Agent Orange resulted in cancer and diabetes. Toxins associated with the herbicide and defoliant chemical are blamed for many premature deaths, five decades after their use in Vietnam.
As the Assemblyman representing Cumberland County, Cape May County and some of Atlantic County, Land also took part in ceremonies last month for the newly opened Sgt. Dominick Pilla Middle School in Vineland.
Pilla, an elite Army Ranger from Vineland, died trying to rescue a fellow ranger in Somalia in 1993. He fought in the battle of Mogadishu, portrayed in the 2001 movie “Black Hawk Down.” Land sponsored a declaration, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, recognizing each Oct. 3 as Sgt. Dominick Pilla and Cpl. Jamie Smith (from Long Valley) Day in New Jersey, marking the date they died. Smith, from Long Valley, perished in the same battle.
Not all of Lamb’s service recollections are somber. He still has pleasant reunions with Army colleagues and a chuckle with Bonnie, his wife of 43 years, about the life that predated them.
Bruce Land (27) poses with his high school football team.
“The reunions we have every couple of years are a big celebration. Bonnie did not know that they called me ‘Buck,’ ”
he says of a common reference to a younger, or junior member of the group. “So, one of my radio men from 50 years ago calls the house and asks for Buck Land.
“ ‘I have a husband named BRUCE Land,’ she said. “ ‘I don’t know any BUCK Land.’
“ ‘OK, put that SOB on the phone,’ my radio man said. That was funny to us. After 50 years, I’m still Buck.”
And still bucking the trend of a classic retirement, which he ended to seek office. When Land was approached about running for the state Assembly in 2015, one of his two grown sons offered “encouragement.”
“I was talking to the family about it, you know, realizing that I needed something to do to get out of the house,” he says. “One of my sons, I guess, is a comedian. He says, ‘Go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? You could win.’ ”
And win he did, on the first try. Land says nothing in the world can prepare one for politics. But a life of service lays the groundwork for what he’ll say in Avalon.