War torn: Vietnam veteran featured in a PBS clip of 'Letters Home Project'

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Attorney Mike Schloff is not one to seek the limelight, preferring instead to work quietly and effectively behind the scenes to advance good causes, particularly as they relate to those who have been or currently are in military service.

But several months ago Schloff stepped into the television spotlight to record a video titled “The Letters Home Project” that accompanied the broadcast of the PBS series on the Vietnam War, a 10-part documentary directed by Ken Burns and his long-time collaborator Lynn Novick. The 18-hour series was highly acclaimed for the breadth of its storytelling, of how a misunderstood war impacted the lives of millions of men, women, and children across the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

A Marine captain during the Vietnam War, Schloff was among those scarred by the combat experience, particularly during a time when he was stationed atop “Hill 270” in the Que Son Mountains, a strategic post where U.S. forces were assigned the task of intercepting the flow of enemy troops and supplies headed down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

It was during his time there, on that remote hilltop in Indochina, that the then 23-year-old Schloff penned a letter to his best friend back home, Tom Kemper. The letter, written on January 15, 1971, serves as the backdrop to the video clip that can be viewed at http://video.wcmu.org/video.wcmu.org/.

The two-minute video tells of Schloff’s longtime friendship with Kemper, a buddy he met in eighth grade, their bond becoming stronger throughout high school and college. In the video, Schloff reads portions of the letter to Kemper, who at the time was hip deep in flight training school, offering words of encouragement to his treasured friend. “Say Tiger – hang in there and get those wings,” Schloff wrote to Kemper some 47 years ago.

The intro, while upbeat, also set the stage for Schloff to relay “a sense” of how he was doing in Vietnam. “So, now you’ve got a taste of what it’s like to be away from someone you love eh?” Schloff said in his letter. “Well at least you’re in the world and not on a remote hill in the Que Son Mountains 13,000 miles away. Consider yourself lucky.”

That military outpost, of course, was not for the faint of heart, Schloff related. “I didn’t bathe or take a shower for eight months,” he said in the video. “We were animals. It was very primitive. That was the normal.”

As was the daily prospect of deadly combat. “I think anyone who has actually served in combat is ever the same,” Schloff said. “I don’t think you can be. We did what we were asked to do. We tried to do it well.”

Schloff earned the Bronze Star for bravery and valor during the Vietnam War, while also receiving the Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation, Vietnam Service Medal, and Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Schloff’s father, a decorated World War II veteran, “was none too pleased” when his son informed him that he had enlisted in the Marines. In fact, the elder Schloff reportedly uttered a few choice words that will never make it into a mainstream newspaper. Those Marines, after all, were of the Vietnam era, a time when men who donned the uniform and were sent to Southeast Asia had a good chance of coming back to the States in pieces. “Let’s just say that he questioned my decision,” said Schloff of his father, Patrick (P.J.). “He knew the reality of war and wondered why I would volunteer for that type of duty.”

It would take nearly four years before Schloff fully appreciated the gravity of his decision. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 after spending one year at Wayne State University.

“Why did I join the Marines,” Schloff asked rhetorically. “‘I liked the uniform’ would be the flip answer, but it was actually much more than that. I grew up in a blue-collar family and my father had volunteered for the Army. It was understood that everyone owed a debt of service to their country. I was bound and determined to fulfill mine.”

His Vietnam service may have turned out differently had it not been for the Marine recruiter at the Michigan State Fairgrounds that summer day in August 1966. Instead of pegging Schloff for infantry duty, the recruiter saw the future trial attorney as “officer material,” routing him to Detroit for enrollment in Platoon Leaders Class. It would allow Schloff time to complete his college education at Wayne State over the next three years, a period in which he would spend summers at such outposts as Quantico, Va. and Fort Sill, Okla.

He began active duty as a second lieutenant in 1969, a time when the Vietnam War was approaching its peak, causing a political divide that seemed to grow wider with each U.S. casualty report. He shipped out to Vietnam in 1970, arriving at the sprawling Da Nang Air Base located in the port city on the northeast coast of the splintered country. “The first sight that I saw was a hangar full of steel coffins,” Schloff recalled. “From that moment on I began to realize that I was about to be involved in some very serious stuff.”

Schloff, a past president of the Oakland County Bar Association, spent a year in Vietnam, half of it stationed on that hilltop along the Laotian border. He was in charge of 52 Marines near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “Our job was to fortify the base and to engage anything that came down the trail,” Schloff explained. “It was high risk work with daily combat.”

Schloff considers himself among the “fortunate,” returning to his homeland in “one piece.” He would remain in the Marine Reserves until 1982, departing with the rank of captain and a heightened sense of purpose that has been further developed over a 42-year legal career.

Upon returning from Vietnam, Schloff enrolled in law school at the University of Detroit, using the benefits of the G.I. Bill to earn his juris doctor degree from the downtown school in 1975. “I always wanted to be a lawyer, even though I had four majors in four years at Wayne State,” he said. “I earned my bachelor’s degree in education and planned to be a high school teacher and football coach, but that plan changed after I did my student teaching. I knew then that I needed to find another career choice.”

 

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