Retired Colonel Richard Seitz – Patriot of the Year

By NANCY CARPENTER

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bob Seitz is still proud to have worn his uniform

Spending a few hours with Honored Patriot Colonel Richard Seitz (known around town as Bob Seitz) is to sign on for a crash course in all things military over the last five decades. Plus, a bit of history for extra credit. No mystery that he has been awarded Patriot of the Year for 2024. I asked him what receiving such an honor meant to him personally. His response made more sense once I knew some of the specifics that comprise his military career.

First, his history. Seitz’s military sensibility comes from his military family. His father served as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, seeing action at Eniwetok, Guam and Okinawa. His mother joined the Marine Corp Women’s Reserve. Women serving our country in what was a new, non-combat capacity was not without a few detractors. Yet the call to enlist – “Be a Marine…Free a Man to Fight” – was heard by 20,000 women.

Both of my parents were proud to have served in that war, so I could relate when Seitz commented, “My mother would often say, ‘First, I’m most proud of my years of service in the Marines. As for you and your brother, the two of you are Number 2.’”

His parents lived in Los Angeles where he was born before the family made its way to San Francisco via Whittier. They no doubt brimmed with pride when he won a congressional appointment to West Point Army Academy.

This was the late ‘60s when Vietnam consumed the nightly news, and a young man’s draft number was synonymous with his birth date. West Point cadets were slated for four years of duty after graduation, their degree almost incidental. Their instructors were Army officers who served as role models to emulate.

The West Point motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” became part of his moral compass. I got a hint of that when he talked about undergraduates gathering for dinner in the cadet mess hall. Senior cadets often had announcements, then read off names of previous cadets serving in Vietnam who were recently killed in combat.

Years drifted away as he recalled men who fell in battle, men he’d never met but still honored, then and now. Seitz’s wife, Robin – did I mention she was a welcome addition to our interview? – placed her hand quietly on his arm.

After graduating, he underwent rigorous Ranger training. “Only two out of five make it,” he said. “Rangers lead the way.” From there he volunteered for Vietnam. As a contemporary of that time, I can recall drafted friends deployed to a country they could not locate on a globe no matter how many geography courses they’d taken.

He shared a story or two about his time as a Lieutenant heading a platoon of 20 men, in the field sleeping on the ground every night. Everyone knew their assignments and what was expected of them, but at any moment another platoon might be hit and there were injuries and casualties that meant stepping up, stepping into a hard fight. As he put it, these are heartbeat decisions. “In the military, you learn to not only take orders without question, but to also take responsibility in unexpected and difficult situations.”

That Seitz was wounded in action took a back seat to his broader story. He received three decorations for valor, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Purple Heart.

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Courtesy of Bob Seitz

Bob Seitz in Vietnam, from his personal photos

We often hear the term “served gallantly,” which Seitz explained refers to a person who served in combat. Seitz’s career was not limited to Vietnam. He also “served meritoriously” in many non-combat capacities. For him, this meant a tour of duty on the Korean DMZ, a swath of land between South Korea and North Korea. Our presence even today “provides deterrence to keep the North Koreans at bay.”

As a Lieutenant Colonel, he served in a similar capacity throughout the ‘80s along the then-Inner German Border commanding an infantry battalion faced off against the Warsaw Pact of Soviet forces. NATO was long established and supported our specific role and partnership with West Germany and other European allies during what would be the last decade of the Cold War.

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After 24 years, Seitz retired from military service in 1993, but continued further service to his country as a defense consultant. Not a surprise given his experience, he was involved with joint NATO operations. As we talked, he underscored the importance of this security alliance, citing as an example the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Poland’s admission into NATO. The result: A unified front that now, given our current geopolitical situation and Poland’s strategic location, keeps Russia at bay.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Seitz sharing a few words during Memorial Weekend 2023

We’d been talking for an hour and I was anxious to ask him about his proudest accomplishments. I had suggested via email we would spend time on this. His written response: “Serving in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division, leading gallant, brave and outstanding American soldiers in battle, having a lifetime bond, along with their trust and affection, nothing in life has been as great an honor and privilege.” Impossible for me to improve on that.

But there was also time spent at Walter Reed Hospital and his mentoring and ministering to wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan plus their families facing what they never wanted to imagine would happen.

Injuries were profound and eclipsed any sense of a future. Within a few days’ notice, the military flew family members to Bethesda, Md. Often they had little more than the clothes on their back, which in the moment didn’t matter. But they would be in Maryland for weeks, even months. To have people there to help with something so simple as providing funding for unexpected expenses, simple things we take for granted, was only the start. They all – wounded as well as spouses and children – needed a vision for this, their life, a life still holding purpose.

Some of it basic: housing, clothes, home schooling. Opportunities to go to playgrounds and museums and concerts were made possible by people such as Seitz and his team of Vietnam veterans.

Some of it quite practical: physical rehab of course, along with education, training, career plans.

Some of it harder to categorize, so much so, that the simple act of gripping someone’s hand made a connection that before then, never seemed possible or necessary, but helped strengthen their hearts for the future. His team also sent updates to their units in Afghanistan, letting them know how their wounded were progressing during their recoveries, exemplifying the term “service to others” that includes care of soldiers and their families.

Seitz has also served as an Honorary Colonel, the title reflecting his retirement, for the 506th Infantry Regiment. I had heard the term “walk the field training.” He shared his personal experiences in Vietnam when observing field training. As he put it, “Sharing insights of how we fought, our tactics in difficult terrain and weather, with the hope that something that I might say would reduce combat casualties during their many deployments to Afghanistan.”

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Courtesy of Bob Seitz

Seitz shared a personal photo. That’s him on the left.

More questions: What does Seitz see, how does he feel, what are his hopes for the military today? Why should someone consider joining the military?

There is the practical business of committing to serving our country in a military capacity, starting with enlisting for three years and “volunteering for service that benefits our nation, service to others and not just to yourself.”

This means being away from home and family for extended periods of time. During this time they “…learn a profession that will carry over to your future civilian career.” In addition to education and health care benefits, there are the less tangible but equally important gains. “As part of a team, you develop your leadership and management skills, learn how to focus on a unit mission and take care of the other members of your team and their families.” Seitz again brought up that important business about developing a moral compass and other valuable lessons for life.

At the end of those first three years, they can re-enlist and perhaps select another field to specialize in. Later I thought about this and recalled a manager reporting to me who needed to hire a large staff for a start-up department. She was a veteran and the office was in Denver, an easy drive from Colorado Springs Air Force Academy. We needed people trained in technology and ready to hit the ground running. She knew what she was doing when she recruited veterans. Not quite a platoon’s worth, and a complement to our non-military staff. “Just give me my marching orders,” she would often say. They were a great team. I learned a lot from them.

The number of veterans is declining, leaving us with fewer and fewer role models. The draft ended in 1973. World War II ended nearly eight decades ago, which makes it amazing that a little under 120,000 veterans are still alive according to the 2023 Department of Veteran Affairs statistics, a fraction of the 16.1 million who served. Seitz paused before commenting; it has become common to hear someone he served with in Vietnam has passed.

His involvement in the Laguna Beach VFW is an important channel for remaining connected to veterans, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even though he is retired, at a recent reunion with his soldiers from Vietnam and current soldiers from the 101st, Seitz was honored to be asked to administer a Reenlistment Oath to a Sergeant he knew. The active-duty soldiers were lined up, paralleling a similar line of veterans. After the oath was delivered, Seitz turned to his soldiers, all in their late 60s, and asked with a smile, “Anyone who wants to re-enlist step forward.” In unison, the entire line of veterans took one big step backwards. They’d served honorably, need not serve again!

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Seitz taking in the ocean breeze

Seitz met his wife Robin while on a fellowship at Harvard University. They have a daughter, Loree, who is a journalist for TheWrap, a Hollywood Entertainment outlet. As a boy, Seitz and his family often visited Laguna Beach. He and his wife both agreed, the perfect place for retirement. They take advantage of the ocean (swimming and dog walking) and mountains (skiing). Recently he became a deacon at Laguna’s Presbyterian Church.

Seitz will be part of Laguna Beach’s Patriots Day Parade on March 2 and at the reviewing stand at City Hall. Sandi Werthe will present him with a personalized plaque.

Courtesy of Bob Seitz

Robin, Loree and Bob Seitz enjoying the Christmas holiday

Back to my initial question: What does Patriot of the Year mean to him? As it turns out, at first he refused to accept it. But after giving this some thought, he did. As he put it: “This is not an individual honor for me. Laguna Beach is honoring all patriots. I am only accepting this for many men and women who I deeply respect and admire for their selfless service to our nation in times of war and peace.”

I believe his words extend beyond Laguna Beach to all who have served our country.


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