All posts by sheryl shafer

9 Sep 2015

Profile of Purpose: Flag Day

Dr Brian DeToy Flag DayWritten by Dr Brian DeToy, June 14, 2021

The American Flag

She’s been through the fire before,And I believe she can take a whole lot more.

~ Johnny Cash         “Ragged Old Flag”

At 5:00 p.m. on September 11th, 2001, three New York City firefighters raised the Stars and Stripes above the wreckage of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. In a photo that went ‘round the world in moments, the American people had recaptured their spirit and their grit and determination. The flag was whisked away later that night and replaced with an even larger one. However, the image, much like the iconic one of the Marines at Iwo Jima, had served its greater purpose. Today, the original flag is on display at the National September 11th Memorial in NYC. “I can hear you! I can hear you!

The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” said President George Bush at the WTC site on September 14, just days afterwards, as American flags waved in resilience.

Flags mean something. Something different, perhaps, to each of us. For me, nothing quite captures the emotions I feel when looking upon our flag as the first stanza of our national anthem is sung. Among many other surging images and thoughts, I always think of that September 14th morning in 1814, when Francis Scott Key saw the American flag still waving above the ramparts of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. Combined with the defeat of the invading army the previous day, the defense of the harbor wrecked British plans and they withdrew from the capital region. Flying from the Fort McHenry battlements that morning was a special pennant. The garrison commander, Major George Armistead commissioned it, saying “I wish for a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a great distance.” Measuring 30 feet by 42 feet, it was the largest battle flag the US has ever flown. Today, it resides on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Key’s poem became our national anthem in 1931.

Congress passed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, two years to the day after creating the US Army. Betsy Ross of Philadelphia, and others, crafted the early flags for use with George Washington’s Continental Army. It has led our Soldiers into battle ever since and does so today. Congress did not state the full particulars of the flag design, but “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The colors are important – Red representing hardiness and valor, White signifying purity and innocence, while Blue maintained vigilance, perseverance and justice. And reflect a moment on those final words – “a new constellation.” The experiment that was the United States was something new, original, filled with hope and promise. There were many old and famous countries, led by kings. Their flags, filled with lions and eagles and stags, were of the old constellation. America represented a young vigorous opportunity. The Declaration of Independence, of which our flag is a tangible reminder, is an aspirational document. We have not yet achieved all it set out. But we can strive to perfect it –to make it real. It is a dream and a challenge to live up to the ideals we say we stand for. And, for us today, it is an obligation to be met, and met willingly.

In 1916, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed an annual national Flag Day. Thirty-three years later, after World War II, President Harry Truman signed a resolution making the holiday June 14th, the same day as the original congressional resolution. Images of the American flag are indelibly linked to our history. From Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers atop San Juan and Kettle Hills to the Marine flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi in the midst of the early bitter fighting on Iwo Jima. The latter is memorialized today in the monument in Arlington, Virginia.

In Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton prison camp, a pilot, Mike Christian of Selma, Alabama, was held for six years. The prison uniform was blue, and Mike crafted a bamboo needle, collected some red and white cloth, and sewed an American Flag inside his shirt. Each afternoon, the POWs would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

For some, repeating the Pledge may not be the most important part (or even any part) of our day. However, for those American prisoners it was incredibly meaningful. One day, the Vietnamese searched Mike’s cell, found his flag and took it, and then beat him mercilessly for hours for “the benefit of the other Americans.” Mike was thrown back inside his stark cell and was badly hurt. Late that night, when all had fallen asleep, Mike woke and sat under a dim bulb with pieces of white, red and blue cloth. With his bamboo needle, and with his eyes nearly swollen shut from the beating, he fashioned another flag. Mike Christian knew how important it was for his fellow prisoners to be able to pledge allegiance to our flag and to our country. In times of incredible stress, something to hold on to can be the thing that saves your life.

On this Flag Day, let us remember Old Glory as the symbol of a people and a country that does not accept defeat, that struggles ever forward toward achieving that more perfect union. We owe this much. To our forebears, especially those who gave their lives that our nation might live. Let the American Flag be our companion on this journey, inspiring the collective us to efforts greater than our individual selves.


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9 Sep 2015

Nazis Invade Holland, Belgium Luxembourg

“Hitler has chosen a moment when, perhaps, it seemed to him that this country was entangled in the throes of a political crisis and he might find it divided against itself. If he has counted upon our internal divisions to help him, he has miscalculated the mind of this people.”

~ Neville Chamberlain, UK Prime Minister 10 May 1940

Later in the day, on this date eight decades ago, Chamberlain resigned and King George VI asked Winston Churchill to form a government. Churchill had been serving as head of the Navy in Chamberlain’s administration. Churchill reached out to Clement Attlee, head of the Labour Party and, together, they formed a unified war government for the duration of the conflict.

80 years ago yesterday, Nazi Germany invaded the Low Countries, neutral countries all, and the west front war with France and Britain was on. The Germans had faced the impregnable Maginot Line on the frontier with France. Knowing they could not breach it, they, instead, invaded the neutrals to go around it.

The British Expeditionary Force was soon cut-off and driven to the Channel ports in less than two weeks.

The conflict would now go on, unabated, for five years.

9 Sep 2015

Vietnam, Cambodia, Covid-19 and America

Vietnam, Cambodia, Covid-19 and America

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

Fifty years ago, April 29th, President Richard Nixon launched the final large-scale American offensive of the Vietnam War, the incursion into Cambodia. The attack caught just about everyone by surprise: the Cambodians, North Vietnamese, and the American and world public. Tactically, it produced some positive effects and bought South Vietnam some time to prepare to defend itself as the US drawdown continued rapidly afterward. Strategically, it was a massive failure on both the world stage and within the US.

One effect was a resurgence of anti-war protests in US towns and cities and on college campuses. Most notoriously, US Army National Guard troops opened fire on protesters and innocent students alike, leaving four young people dead at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. The lyrics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young evoke the turbulent mood of horror, outrage, and shock. Young watched coverage of the shooting, wrote the lyrics and the group recorded it on May 21st. The B side of Ohio was Stephen Stills’ ode to the war dead, Find the Cost of Freedom.

Find the cost of freedom

Buried in the ground

Mother Earth will swallow you

Lay your body down

The cost of freedom refers to the death of all those fighting for it, the anti-war students in Kent as well as the soldiers in Vietnam.

As she did fifty years ago, Mother Earth continues to make room for those dying in the current “war” against the Covid-19 virus — no matter the age, sex, race, or religion.

On April 29th, the numbers of Americans felled by Covid-19 surpassed all those American lives lost in Vietnam over a period of almost two decades. As I write this, we have lost 55,356 these past two months and more every day. In the entirety of the Vietnam War we lost 58,193.

In the war, most of the dead were young men. Some 40,000 were 22 or younger, and 3,121 were 18 or younger.

The youngest name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington DC is that of Dan Bullock of North Carolina by way of Brooklyn. He altered his birth certificate in 1968 to join the US Marines after watching the Tet Offensive on television. He survived Parris Island boot camp and went to Vietnam, where he was killed in 1969. The African-American private and Marine rifleman was 15 years old.

Today, most of those dying of Covid-19 in the US are older than the mean. Some 62 percent are 65 and older. Only 5 percent are under age 44. However, young people and even babies have died from it.

The oldest American to perish thus far is Philip Kahn, who served as a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces in WWII. He was 100 years old. His twin brother, Samuel, had passed from the Spanish Flu weeks after his birth a century ago.

The oldest American to die in Vietnam was 62. Only 125 of those killed were 50 or older. War is fought by the young. The battle against Covid-19 knows no such rules. All are vulnerable.

In Vietnam, eight American women gave their lives. In the Covid-19 fight, women make up 38 percent of the US deaths thus far.

In Vietnam, Philadelphia’s Thomas Edison High School lost 54 of its graduates. Philadelphia had suffered terribly in the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu epidemic and is, again today, struggling against Covid-19.

In fact, the states that suffered the most casualties in Vietnam are some of those with the highest rates of deaths today against Covid-19. New York trailed only California in the most deaths in the war. Other states in the top six included Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan along with Texas.

The most American deaths in a single day in Vietnam was 245 on January 31, 1968, in the first days of the Tet Offensive. With 2,415, May 1968 saw the most deaths in a month, during Tet’s second phase.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 virus is taking American lives at a rate of over 2,000 per day.

While every death is a tragedy of some magnitude, some affect us more for various reasons. One is timing. On their first day of combat duty in Vietnam, 997 Americans lost their lives. And on what was supposed to be their final day after a year of combat duty, 1,448 gave the supreme sacrifice.

Today, we are seeing grandparents and parents unable to be seen or held in their last moments, spouses dying alone, babies succumbing soon after their lives had begun.

Fifty years ago, American society was struggling with a great many issues. Race, gender/women’s liberation, drugs, the environment, entitlements and more. President Lyndon Johnson had begun the focus of the Great Society programs after he visited poor whites in Appalachia in 1964. The appalling conditions he found there – lack of education, healthcare, employment, stable family structure and more – is what engendered his massive government response, a response that went well beyond Appalachia to the wider country in a war on poverty.

Today, once again, poor whites across America (especially in rural areas that have not garnered jobs from the revolution in global networking) are finding themselves in the situation LBJ saw in 1964. We are seeing what are called deaths of despair, as thousands of our brothers and sisters kill themselves with alcohol, heroin, meth, and opioids in an epidemic that yearly rivals the total deaths in Vietnam.

America also faced a crisis in 1970 as it looked toward its federal government. At the beginning of the conflict, the public and the media were initially supportive of the reasons for going to war. And, in general, they were also supportive of the tactics, operations and strategies employed by the military and civilian leadership in Saigon and DC.

However, when the public saw that lies had been and were being propagated to continue the war, the public rebelled. For instance, LBJ and his chief military commander in Vietnam, William Westmorland, led the public to believe the war was almost won in the last days of 1967. Then, when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a huge, nation-wide offensive across all of South Vietnam a month later, even entering the US Embassy compound, the American people lost faith with the program. North Vietnam’s Tet offensive, probably a tactical defeat, became, more importantly, a strategic success. LBJ lost heart and decided against running for a second term.

Richard Nixon took advantage of a divided Democratic party to become president in January 1969 with a promise to end the war with honor and bring American boys home. Thus, his offensive into Cambodia in April 1970 caught everyone by surprise. It seemed one more, great big lie had been foisted on the American people.

The drumbeat of falsehood, from the Gulf of Tonkin incident through Tet to Cambodia and then fully exposed with the publication of The Pentagon Papers in June 1971, led to a collapse of faith by the American people in its leaders.

The revelations of Nixon’s coverup of the Watergate break-in finally led to an almost complete break of trust after a decade-long lack of forthright federal leadership in the racial conflicts of 1965-69, and the prosecution of the Vietnam War. America — left-right, black-white, young-old, poor-wealthy – was fed-up and demoralized.

It was a long road back. And on the way back, much of the evils of those days were papered over and never fully resolved or realized. So that they remained, below the surface, ready to fester again.

Today, when the Covid-19 virus hit and the federal government began taking actions such as closing the borders and issuing initial guidance on aspects such as social distancing, the American public initially rallied around its leaders and was prepared to support the required actions deemed necessary.

However, amidst half-truths and outright lies, and mixed messages on everything from closing and reopening to treatments and equipment, the lack of a federally coordinated response resulted in a public unaware of who was calling the shots. And when it became apparent that this flawed federal response was incapable of meeting the immediate needs in many areas, the people and press began to question their leaders. Primed perhaps by the experiences of the Vietnam era, and exacerbated by the anti-government messaging of Ronald Reagan and others, the public has a much shorter leash on its tolerance for lies and ineptitude. A crisis of confidence is again ensuing.

Many of the issues facing America in 1970 – race, gender, entitlements, immigration, environment – are the same facing America today. We had reached a sort of nadir, a rock-bottom, after Vietnam and Watergate. But we gradually pulled together and set out once again to make America a better place.

That is where we are now. This is a trying time. It is, indeed, a war. The enemy is real, if difficult at times to grapple. It morphs and we must adapt to its changes. We can do this. We will do this.

Today the battle is not being waged halfway around the globe. It is in our towns and hospitals. It stalks our neighborhoods and businesses. It is in our densest cities and in our rural hamlets coast-to-coast. This is a fight on our home turf. Beyond the struggles for civil rights, we have not waged a battle of this magnitude on our shores since our Civil War 160 years ago. The country had not been set against itself as in that conflict till Vietnam. Today we are at an inflection point once more. Surely now is a time to gather together our communal strength when our hearts, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, are “again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Americans have met every challenge set before them for a quarter millennium.  We see opportunities in them. Opportunities to do better, to build stronger. America is a promise. Our Declaration sets out our ideals. Who we are and why we are here. All men are created equal. We have not yet fulfilled our promise, achieved our greatness. It is always somewhere up ahead. It is in the striving that we show our greatness. We do not give up. We overcome. And we shall overcome again.

Author: Dr. Brian DeToy

#covid19 #vietnam50 #cambodia50 #kentst50

9 Sep 2015

Brian DeToy Iraq Blog from 2010: Flight to Taji

So yesterday morning I decided I wanted to go up-country a bit and talk with some commanders and staff about certain aspects of leadership and leadership development. So, I got on our handy-dandy air portal and signed up for a helicopter (CH47 Chinook) flight out of a nearby airbase for 1930. At about 1830 SGM drove me over to the base and I found I had not been manifested. Didn’t matter, because weather had socked in all rotary flights since 1500; they went ahead and added me to the list of passengers. I also went over to the Air Force folks and signed up for a fixed-wing flight scheduled to go to the same place at 0200. SGM then left me and returned to Victory. I read a book, made a couple of calls on the free phones provided by the USO (but only got a hold of Mom and surprised her with my voice!) At 2300 the call came through that all rotary (helo) flights were cancelled across central Iraq for the night due to the weather situation. Lots of groans from all the folks on the flight line. I went back over to the Air Force and their flight was still a ‘go.’ At 2330 we manifested (about 40 of us) and we finally made our way to the plane about 0100 this morning. Besides my body armor, helmet and weapon, I only had one small rucksack so not much trouble. It was a C-130 Hercules (4 props), the old workhorse of Army-Air Force cooperation for decades. I have flown more in this aircraft than any other. Same old rigged jump seats, too. I sat down, strapped in and promptly fell asleep; the stiffness and height of the body armor makes a nice headrest. Sometime in there the engines started and revved and they raised the ramp. Suddenly, about the time we should have been taxiiing, I heard the crew chief yell – ‘We’re shutting down and everybody has to get off. Sorry about that.’ Really more groans now! Then, he turned to me and said, ‘Sir ,can you step up front for a minute?’ At the ladder to the cockpit, he whispered, over the engines, “Sir, we’re still taking you with us. Could you jump up into the cockpit so the others don’t see you are staying? I did as bid. Ten minutes later the other passengers had debarked and their gear had been off-loaded from the ramp. The crew all gathered in the cockpit – there were three young captains (two pilots and a navigator, all under 30), the crew chief and the airman. They informed me that the weather situation was such that they were not allowed to make the flight with passengers but, they figured, as a lieutenant colonel, I must be important enough to get to my destination. No argument from me. After some more talk about weather impacts (“The rules here say we can’t fly.” “But the regs say we can.” “And the charts and reports are at least 4 hours old.” “And I don’t want to spend the night here.”, etc, etc), with me as bemused bystander, the two pilots decided to return to the weather room and get the latest guidance. I remained with the other three and we talked college and sports; the airman is from Madison Wisconsin and is a rabid Badger! And the navigator is a Texas A&M Aggie all the way. He, by the way, was in favor of flying regardless of what anyone said – “I can get us there,” he kept repeating. Eventually, 0245, the pilots returned and told me “Sir, our higher in the UAE, has given us permission to make this night flight, under night-vision goggles, in this weather, and into a very short airstrip none of us has ever seen before, even in daylight. If I decide at the last moment, that I can’t make it, I am to abort and take this bird to Kuwait and not back here. Do you still want to go with us?” Now, I thought, who can pass up an offer of adventure like that?! So, I said “I need to chew some ass down in Ali al Salem anyway (in Kuwait), so if that happens I can make something out of it, as long as I get a flight back up here tomorrow.” No problem, the pilot told me. So, we were off. Again, these were all young guys and they were excited to be doing something new and a bit dangerous and, at least, interesting in this boring old war of theirs. The crew went through their checklists in their painstaking manner (thankfully) and at 0300 we revved and throttled those big engines and taxiied out onto the runway. I have never flown in a large plane cockpit before (several Cessnas but nothing like this). It was awesome! What a view; the nose of a C-130 has a ton of window and I had the cat’s perch. Watching these young men work, rumbling down the runway, goggled eyes scanning left, right and front, was pretty cool. True professionals. The navigator would stand and peer out from time to time. We took off quickly (a C-130 does not need much runway, and that is why it is so useful to us Army guys), and we banked off into the black. We reached our cruising altitude pretty fast and I had a perfect view of the giant city spread out before me. The liveliness of it, even at that hour, makes me think this whole endeavor will succeed. As we approached our destination camp, I kept a sharp eye back and forth between navigator and pilot. We did overfly the objective the first time. I don’t know if this was intentional or not. It was their first time to this strip and there was the weather. However, it is not usual to do this with enemy about. You don’t want to loiter around or do a slow lazy circle back in. But we did. I was OK with it. Not that I had any choice. We banked incredibly sharply, lots of Gs, and came into the airstrip. 500 the computer voice intoned, 450, meantime the navigator is calling it out too, 250, 200, the pavement is coming up real fast now, 100, 50, 30, 10, touchdown. Immediately, the engines kicked into reverse and the plane stopped almost on a dime. Great bird! We spun around in front of the Iraqi Air Force bays and I saw two pickups waiting. The crew chief gave me the thumbs up and I was released. I scampered down the cockpit ladder and out the ramp on the tail of the plane. I was met by a senior NCO on the tarmac who pointed me to the trucks. I walked over and found my good friend Major Scott Shaw. Ten years ago this very month, he and I had flown into the Sinai peninsula with our battalion (I was XO and he was my S-3 Air) for a six-month peacekeeping deployment on the Egyptian-Israeli border. He took me back to his office, filed some reports and then hit the sack at about 0430. Got up today (its all one long day now) and met with some officers in the late morning and afternoon. Met up with an old cadet of mine, Captain Megan (Noble) Andros, for lunch and then caught the late afternoon UH-60 Blackhawk flight back to my home base. Again, there was a screw up with the manifest, but my rank allowed them to put me on the list. In both cases, I did not say or do anything to ‘use rank’ or ‘push it.’ It was simply that I was the highest ranking person around both times and the folks ‘made it happen.’ Its funny – here in the Palace, there are a couple billion lieutenant colonels running around, while out in the sticks there are fewer and fewer; so it felt good to be one again. On the flight back, we came in over farmland between the fertile Tigris and Euphrates; at times my mind wandered as I was watching the pastoral scene and it was as if I was looking at an American farming landscape. Only a dirty brown home or stretch of poor irrigation canal would give it away. All in all, a very good day and quite productive. And I very much enjoyed my flight last night; glad to have been with those young guys as they did some new things.

9 Sep 2015

EHE’s COO Sheryl Shafer Featured in Inspiring Stories

EHE Brian DeToy & Sheryl Rankin Shafer

Essential History Expeditions’ COO Sheryl Shafer was recently featured in Voyage Denver magazine’s Inspiring Stories section! Click the link below to read the article!

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sheryl Shafer.

Sheryl, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Sometimes, life comes in stages. In my growing up years, my family moved frequently because my father was a pilot in the Air Force. The “middle stage” included raising two children; traveling with them extensively to expose them to life outside of Boulder, Colorado; and working in the education field and as a freelance editor and writer. The current stage began when my youngest child was successfully engaged in college and my husband, Dr. Brian DeToy, retired from the US Army where, in his final position at West Point, he had been a university history professor. The consistent thread through all of life’s stages is that I have always loved exploring new places. The time was right for a new adventure!

My husband and I share an enthusiasm for travel, history and cultures in different parts of the world, and as a professional historian, he had developed a skill set in leading groups on historical tours. A college friend of mine asked us if we would put together a trip for the 70th commemoration of the Normandy D-Day invasion. We had been thinking of this as a second career and the impetus put us on that path. We took our first group of 28 guests on this trip in June 2014 as a trial run to see if we enjoyed the process/experience and to see if we worked well together 24/7. It was a smashing success, Essential History Expeditions was born, and we have never looked back!

Our business has grown each year and we are as busy as we wish to be, taking hundreds of guests on amazing experiential learning expeditions worldwide. We now run life-changing trips to Vietnam, South Africa, Cuba and Greece-Turkey in addition to those in western Europe and all over the US. Our trips focusing on the Americans in World War I as well as the D-Day Normandy invasion from the preparation in England to the Normandy beaches to the liberation of Paris have been particularly in demand. Some of our groups are open to the general public, some are exclusive high-end private tours, and some are in conjunction with university students and alumni.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
As a small business without a local base since we run tours worldwide, building the clientele the first couple of years was a challenge. However, folks who joined our tours loved the experience and shared with their friends and family and many also joined us for additional trips themselves. We have continued to grow and are most pleased that our “return guest” dynamic is approximately 35 percent. We feel this is a great testament to the quality of our tours!

A second challenge continues to be marketing through technology. We have a great website, which I have learned to maintain, but internet searches favor large companies that can invest in advertising rather than small homegrown businesses. But I have learned a tremendous amount about running the marketing and technology side of our business!

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Essential History Expeditions – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Essential History Expeditions develop, coordinates and conduct vibrant and memorable historical tours and cultural expeditions to worldwide locations to educate and inspire guests. Our tours take guests to iconic and historic destinations worldwide where they experience not only the culture of the location but also gain an understanding of the history and events that have shaped it.

My husband and I lead each of these immersive, all-inclusive tours as an expert historian and travel planner team, ensuring a personalized, rewarding and enriching vacation. Our goal is not to run many tours per year but, instead, to focus on a few highly crafted tours with engaging guests. We truly value the friendships we develop with guests in seminal locations around the world!

Numerous tour companies focus on battlefield and historic city tours. Depending on the intent of the guest and what they hope to gain from the experience, many of these companies may prove eminently suitable and even cost less than an EHE expedition. In fact, the Essential History experience is not for everyone. It is an investment in time and energy, make no doubt. EHE guests are active participants as we subscribe fully to the Benjamin Franklin quote “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I learn. Involve me and I remember.” EHE promises a rewarding, enriching encounter that will resonate for a lifetime.

EHE is known for its high quality in the complete experience – education, immersion, lodgings and meals, and personal growth. We are most proud of the fact that approximately 35 percent of the people who have traveled with us once have traveled with us on multiple journeys with several having been on five different trips! For us, that is a testament that we are providing an experience that resonates.

Our tour offerings have included South Africa with a focus on Mandela and natural beauty; Vietnam culture and the war; Cuba in all its beauty and complexities; Scotland and the Highlands; Prague history and culture; Americans in WWI in the gorgeous champagne region of France; WWII with a focus on D-Day preparation in England, the Normandy beaches and the liberation of Paris; the Battle of the Bulge; Civil War with a focus on Antietam and Gettysburg, American Revolution with a focus on West Point and Saratoga, and Philadelphia, New York City and Boston; Pearl Harbor anniversary commemorations; and the rich centuries of history and culture of Greece and Turkey. Many of our trips also include cathedrals, castles, wine regions and tastings, cooking classes, theater and concert experiences, and gorgeous beaches – and South Africa includes an amazing safari.

Perhaps the best way to describe our tours is to quote a previous guest, who has since become a wonderful friend: “I would not, ever, take a history-focused trip with anyone else! Brian is a walking encyclopedia, and Sheryl the most competent and caring person I know. Having worked with them for several years now on several trips, I can say without reservation that they are THE BEST and we will be happily planning and taking more trips with them in years to come!”

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We continue to expand the locations in which we take our guests. For example, we are currently planning a WWII and Cold War-focused trip in Eastern Europe, including Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Munich and Berlin. Doing the preparatory work in reconnaissance of hotels, restaurants, etc is one of our favorite times to spend together as a couple, exploring and immersing ourselves in planning an amazing adventure for our guests. We are also excited to continue to expand our reach into the university travel sphere as this allows us to impact young people in a direct, emotional context. We are currently working with seven university programs and this is a rewarding aspect of our business.

We are not looking at any major changes in our model right now. We feel very fortunate at this point to see our business sustain and thrive in a competitive travel market. Again, we feel this is testament to the quality of what we offer the savvy traveler.


9 Sep 2015

George Washington Elected President 230 Years Ago

“As mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government.

I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.”

~ George Washington

On this date 230 years ago, the Electoral College elected Washington as President and John Adams as Vice President. Their inauguration occurred on April 30th.

9 Sep 2015

Opinion: The Embargo on Cuba Failed. Let’s Move On.

Interesting piece on Cuba from Nick Kristof this morning in the NYT. His take is pretty much the one we (Brian, Sheryl, EHE) have taken since our first visit nearly four years ago. We have found the people to be just about the most friendly and open we have met anywhere in our travels, and the country to be the safest and one of the most beautiful we have visited.

HAVANA — It has been 60 years since Fidel Castro marched into Havana, so it’s time for both Cuba and the United States to grow up. Let’s let Cuba be a normal country again.

Cuba is neither the demonic tyranny conjured by some conservatives nor the heroic worker paradise romanticized by some on the left. It’s simply a tired little country, no threat to anyone, with impressive health care and education but a repressive police state and a dysfunctional economy.

Driving in from the airport, I saw billboards denouncing the American economic embargo as the “longest genocide in history.” That’s ridiculous. But the embargo itself is also absurd and counterproductive, accomplishing nothing but hurting the Cuban people — whom we supposedly aim to help.

After six decades, can’t we move on? Let’s drop the embargo but continue to push Havana on improving human rights, and on dropping support for other oppressive regimes, like those in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Let’s make room for nuance: Cuba impoverishes its citizens and denies them political rights, but it does a good job providing basic education and keeping people healthy. As I noted in my last column, on Cuba’s health care system, Cuba’s official infant mortality rate is lower than America’s (its real rate may or may not be).

I’m not a Cuba expert, and I don’t know how this country will evolve. But Cuba has a new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is associated with experiments in opening up the economy. Fidel is gone and his brother Raúl is fading from the scene.

In the 1960s, we were scared of Cuba. We feared that neighboring countries would tumble like dominoes into the Communist bloc, and the Soviet Union attempted to place on Cuba nuclear missiles that could have threatened America. But today even as those fears have dissipated, our policy has ossified.

President Barack Obama took the necessary step of re-establishing diplomatic relations and easing the embargo, but President Trump reversed course and tightened things up again out of knee-jerk hostility to anything Cuban and anything Obaman.

Cuba is changing, albeit too slowly. About one-third of its labor force is now in the private sector, and this is just about the only part of the economy that is thriving. I stayed in one of the growing number of Airbnbs in Havana, and people were friendly, even if governments are not: When I said I was from the United States, I inevitably got a big grin and a reference to a cousin in Miami or New York or Cleveland.

Plus, extra credit goes to a country that so lovingly preserves old American cars. I rode in from the airport in a pink 1954 Cadillac.

In another sign of flexibility, Cuba recently hammered out a deal with Major League Baseball that will allow Cuban players to travel legally to the U.S. and play on American teams.

Yet, sadly, the Trump administration is threatening the deal.

Consider the persistence of North Korea and Cuba, and there’s an argument that sanctions and isolation preserve regimes rather than topple them. China teaches us not to be naïve about economic engagement toppling dictators, but on balance tourists and investors would be more of a force for change than a seventh decade of embargo.

Moreover, trade, tourism, travel and investment empower a business community and an independent middle class. These are tools to destabilize a police state and help ordinary Cubans, but we curtail them. America blames the Castros for impoverishing the Cuban people, but we’ve participated in that impoverishment as well.

Cuba’s government is not benign. It’s a dictatorship whose economic mismanagement has hurt its people, and Human Rights Watch says it “routinely relies on arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics.” But it doesn’t normally execute them (or dismember them in consulates abroad like our pal Saudi Arabia), and it tolerates some criticism from brave bloggers like Yoani Sánchez.

It is revising its Constitution, and my hope is that over time — despite ideologues in both Havana and the United States — relations will continue to develop. Some American seniors who now winter in Florida could become snowbirds in Cuba instead, relying on its health care, low prices, great beaches and cheap labor. You can hire a home health care aide for a month in Havana for the cost of one for a day in Florida.

China’s economic boom began in the early 1980s partly with factories financed by Chinese overseas, and after the American embargo ends, Cuba will have similar opportunities to forge mutually beneficial business partnerships with Cubans overseas.

That would benefit both sides. For 60 years we’ve been feuding, like the Hatfields and the McCoys, in a conflict whose origins most Americans don’t even remember clearly.

So come on. We should all be bored by a lifetime of mutual recriminations and antagonisms. Let’s put aside the ideology, end the embargo, tone down the propaganda and raise a mojito together.

I propose a toast to a new beginning.

9 Sep 2015

“Paths to the Past” as Published in Global Traveler Magazine

An interview with Essential History Expeditions’ Dr. Brian DeToy was published in the May 2018 edition of Global Traveler magazine. Click here to read the full article on the trend in historical tourism. The final paragraph states: “Historical tourism,” says DeToy, “means examining in depth the people, events and cultures that created or impacted the stream of history in such ways that we are still touched by it today. It is the human story.”


9 Sep 2015

“Destination: History” as Published in Denver Life Magazine

Denver Life Magazine recently published an article on Essential History Expeditions. Read on here or click here for the piece in Denver Life

Sheryl Rankin Shafer and Dr. Brian DeToy are used to being in the classroom—but now those classrooms move around the world, from the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam. The husband-and-wife educators founded the Denver company Essential History Expeditions in 2014 to provide clients with “you are there” trips that go straight to the places where history happened. “Instead of our classroom being four walls and a chalkboard or a PowerPoint, we’re on site,” DeToy says. “We’re looking at the Acropolis of Athens. We’re looking at Waterloo in Belgium. We’re walking the fields to the cliffs of Normandy in France. There is nothing to compare with learning like that. It’s in your head and heart forever.”

Why did you start the company?
“I spent 28 years in the military, 14 of them as a college professor, either at West Point or at the University of Kansas, where I ran the ROTC program,” DeToy says. “I was deployed in infantry battalions around the world throughout my career, and while doing that I developed a skillset of taking people on tours of specific battlefields, like Gettysburg, Antietam, the Little Big Horn, D-Day and sites of Israeli-Arab conflicts. After I retired and moved to Colorado, some friends asked us to put together a trip to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the invasion, in 2014. Then some other friends asked us to lead another trip. Sheryl, whose background is also in education, and I realized that instead of teaching in a brick-and-mortar setting, we could teach in a more experiential way.”

What is a typical day like on one of your trips?
“We are a small company. Brian is our historian guide for every trip, and I provide support at a personalized level,” Shafer says. “We typically start our trip days around 9 a.m., and the days are full, going to 4 or 5 p.m., with downtime followed by a social hour and then dinner. On our public trips, most meals are included, but on private ones, we do whatever the group wants. We want people to feel like they are getting what they came for. If somebody is looking for a vacation where they sit on the beach, that is not what we do. We try to limit the number of people on trips to 15 to 20, and the cost varies, but an average multi-day trip would be $3,500 per person, plus airfare. That covers lodging, transportation during the trip—really everything, once we are at our location.”


Prague, Czech Republic. Courtesy Essential History Expeditions

Describe your average customer.
“I’d say the typical guest is between 40 and 75; they are educated, often with advanced degrees, and they are interested in history and culture,” Shafer says. “We get quite a number of couples, but we also get families traveling with high school or college-age kids.” Adds DeToy: “In terms of knowledge, they can run the gamut, from people who have done all of the background reading we suggest, in books and articles, to some who do none of that. But by the end of any trip, everyone has learned and experienced and been changed.”

Do your trips tend to focus on military history?
“Not all of them,” DeToy says. “I have a Ph.D. in European history, and I have a deep and abiding interest across many levels of Western civilization. So even on a D-Day trip, we’ll go to London and talk about the city from Roman times to the present, and we’ll talk about Shakespeare, and in Normandy, we’ll visit the Bayeux Tapestry. We cover a lot.” Adds Shafer: “He truly has encyclopedic knowledge, from artwork to literature to the military.”

Why do your clients like your trips so much?
“No. 1, I think, is our detailed planning. We do numerous reconnaissance trips beforehand, so we’ve been to each location several times already, and the two of us lead every single trip,” Shafer says. “We know every single restaurant, hotel and route. Also, it’s a very hands-on, immersive experience, so everyone is engaged. People on the trips might portray historical figures—like on the D-Day trip, someone might portray Eisenhower. It’s not required, but the fact is, everyone is a participant in his or her own engaged learning. That sets us apart.”

What trips are coming up?
“We have a few standards that we do every year: Normandy, Cuba, Vietnam, a Civil War trip to Gettysburg,” De Toy says. “But we’re always looking for new places to explore, so next year we are taking a group to South Africa and to the Aegean, and in 2020 we are adding Greece and Turkey.”

Denver-based guided historic and educational group tour company offering trips to Vietnam, France, Gettysburg, South Africa and more.


9 Sep 2015

Vietnam & the Free World Military Forces

On December 12, 1969, a 1,350-man Civic Action Group from the Army of the Philippines, departs South Vietnam. They were part of the Free World Military Forces, an effort by President Johnson to enlist allies for the war. By securing support, Johnson hoped to build an international consensus behind his Vietnam policies.

The Philippine unit entered Vietnam in September 1966, operating in the Tay Ninh Province northwest of Saigon. The force included engineers, medical and rural community development teams, field artillery, and a logistics and headquarters element.

Ultimately, Johnson’s FWMF program failed as only 5 nations responded. South Korea sent over 300,000 men (50,000 in country at one time), while the Philippines sent 11,000, Australia 7,500, New Zealand 550 and Spain 30.

Join us this coming April 16-29, 2018 as we explore the incredible country of Vietnam, from its history and culture to its beaches and cities and mountains!

9 Sep 2015

World War I Era Family

9 Sep 2015

The Importance of Remembering

Here is a very interesting article on the importance of the US in the Great War, and the importance of remembering.…/has-the-us-forgotten-abou…/ar-BBFYGdz…

We will be leading a phenomenal expedition to France next July 1-7 to do just that — remember America in World war One. The beautiful French countryside adds to the trip!

Check-out the link below for more information on this amazing adventure!

9 Sep 2015

Vietnam Hero

50 years ago last week Father Angelo Litecky, priest of 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry, earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism in bringing 20 wounded men to safety in a very tough battle in Bien Hoa. The article in the link below tells the incredible story.

Join us next April 16-29, 2018 as we explore America and Vietnam at 50. This is an amazing country with great natural beauty and a vibrant culture filled with friendly people.

This would make a truly wonderful Christmas present for your self or those you love.

Check-out the link below for more information on the trip!

Here is the link on Father Litecky’s story of the patrol with Alpha Company:…/the-bloodiest-day-december-6-1967/


9 Sep 2015

Pearl Harbor Commemoration

A year ago yesterday, Sheryl and I had the privilege, with our EHE guests and friends, to attend the national Pearl Harbor Memorial Ceremonies on the 75th commemoration of that dark day. Our great additional privilege was to escort one of our guests, Stan Van Hoose, who had been assigned as a navigator’s assistant on the bridge of the USS Maryland that Sunday morning, just behind the Arizona and tied next to the Oklahoma. Stan was amazing throughout the trip, sharing his experiences with the hundreds who stopped to talk with him. On just one occasion did his great shoulders heave and sob — as we first came aboard the Arizona memorial and I wheeled him over to the water’s edge and we looked down upon the ship and her men below. Then, we went forward and talked about the men as we examined the wall of those who died that morning. It is something I will always cherish and never forget. In total, there were some 250+ veterans of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War in attendance.

In June 2019, we will lead an EHE expedition to attend the 75th commemoration activities for D-Day on the beaches of Normandy. We attended the 70th and it was amazing. I am certain the 75th will be even better and, frankly, probably the last time we will have such numbers of veterans in attendance. The link to the trip is below. I hope you can join us.…/normandy-d-day-75th-anniversary/

9 Sep 2015

Passing of Judge Finney, a Civil Rights Icon

“We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”
~ Judge John C. Hayes III of Rock Hill, SC in 2015

On Jan. 31, 1961, 10 black students sat at a whites-only lunch counter at a local Rock Hill store and asked to be served.

Dragged by police from their stools, the protesters, from nearby Friendship Junior College, were charged with breach of peace and trespassing. Judge Billy D. Hays gave them a choice: pay a $100 fine or spend 30 days on a chain gang.

The choice was clear. They would not pay fines and thereby subsidize a segregationist government. They took the jail time (knowing it would cost the county money for room & board), and thus galvanized the fledgling civil rights movement.

They had embraced a new strategy of resistance: “jail, not bail.” Their idea was to embarrass segregated Southern towns by compounding arrest with the spectacle of being imprisoned merely for ordering lunch or sitting in the wrong part of a bus or theater, or attending an all-white church.

Their lawyer was Ernest A. Finney Jr., who began practicing full time only in 1960 after doubling as a teacher and working part time in a restaurant to make ends meet. He would later represent thousands of other civil rights defendants. Most lost their cases in South Carolina’s local courts. All but two, however, were later absolved on appeal.

54 years after the arrests, Finney returned to Rock Hill to reargue the case. Most of the defendants joined him. Judge Finney, 83, hobbled into the courtroom and rose slowly to address Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III.

Wearing a tie emblazoned with the state’s palmetto and crescent moon logo, Finney appealed to the court to exonerate the men, who had been sentenced in 1961 by Judge Hayes’ uncle. “Justice and equity demand that this motion be granted,” Finney declared.

It was. In a bittersweet rebuke to the past, the convictions were overturned. The sentences were vacated. The prosecutor apologized.

Justice Finney graduated from law school in 1954, the same year the United States Supreme Court delivered its Brown v. Board of Education decision. At the time, only a handful of black lawyers were practicing in South Carolina, and blacks were excluded from juries. In 1976, he was elected the state’s first black Circuit Court judge. In 1985, the Legislature named him to the State Supreme Court — the first black since Reconstruction in 1877. In 1994, the General Assembly elected him Chief Justice of South Carolina.

“I would like to be thought of as the man who did the best he could with what he had for as long as I could. All people have a responsibility to be the very best that we can be in whatever we do, and by and large, if you do that, the color of your skin becomes less and less important.”

“For some reason, I have always felt that if America was to live up to its promises to all people, I thought the law would be the basis for change. We knew the law at the time was against us, but we never lost faith that what we perceived to be justice would prevail. When I look at how far we have come today, I have to say, ‘If there’s a man who ought to be impressed with the fact that the law works, I’m that man.’”

Finney died on Sunday in Columbia, SC. He was 86.

God bless Justice Finney and the Civil Rights movement he represented so well.

9 Sep 2015

“Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II”

“In the fall of 1941, mysterious letters appeared in the mailboxes of a select group of young women attending the Seven Sisters colleges. Chosen for their aptitude in such subjects as math, English, history, foreign languages and astronomy, the women were invited to meet one-on-one with senior professors. At Wellesley, the students were asked unusual questions: Did they like doing crossword puzzles, and did they have imminent wedding plans? Those women who gave the right answers — yes, and no — were asked to sign confidentiality agreements and join a hush-hush government project.”

This is the opening to a review of “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.” Looking forward to reading this book, about codebreakers working in conjunction with those at Bletchley Park in England — helping to destroy the Nazis. From Rosie the Riveter to the women flying the planes to Europe to the codebreakers and many, many more — American women were doing their part to rid the world of Nazis and fascism.

9 Sep 2015

WWII American Hero Dies at 96

“These young Gestapo guys don’t even check papers well anymore.”

~ Irv Refkin

A young Jewish-American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) spy during WWII, Refkin spent a lot of time behind enemy lines, usually disguised as a German corporal (“No one has ever noticed a corporal,” he said).

On this occasion he was having drinks with a Wehrmacht colonel in a Paris hotel when a Gestapo officer asked for their identification. The colonel expressed such indignation that the frazzled Gestapo officer stalked off and Refkin sardonically said the above to the colonel as they continued to quaff drinks.

Refkin said the OSS encouraged its field agents improvise as needed. “They told you what they wanted to get done, but they didn’t tell you how to do it.”

During the war, among other exploits, Refkin, aged 20-23, smuggled explosives to the French Resistance, infiltrated Nazi Germany and killed specific targets integral to the war machine, and sabotaged rail tracks that slowed down the German armored response to the Normandy/D-Day landings.

Refkin passed this week at 96. God speed, American hero.

9 Sep 2015

Vietnam: Ghosts of Our Fathers

By Lt. Col.(ret) Brian M. DeToy, PhD & Sheryl Rankin Shafer

Photo Credit: Sheryl Rankin Shafer

Vietnam. The word itself conjured up so many images, so many memories for my wife and me. It was associated so deeply with our youth. I was born in 1962 on an Army camp on Okinawa and Sheryl a few years later on an air base in New Jersey. We came of age, of awareness, with the conflict in Vietnam on our televisions and in discussions in our homes, schools and communities.

Each of our fathers was career military. My father, Master Sgt. Robert DeToy, had joined as a seventeen-year old in 1951 and had served as an infantryman in the Korean War. Later, he transferred to the Signal Corps. Sheryl’s father, Lt. Col. James L. Rankin, had graduated from Texas A&M in 1958 and became both a pilot and weather officer. Eventually, they would each serve two tours of duty in Vietnam, both in 1962 and my father in 1968-69 and Sheryl’s father in 1969-70.

In the past few years, we have traveled extensively across the United States, Europe, the Caribbean basin and elsewhere. One place high on our list to visit was southeast Asia. The history, culture, natural beauty and ties to our fathers’ service were more than intriguing. They were a calling. And this past May we made them a reality.

As a retired Army officer and professor and an expert historian, I had extensive knowledge on the actions in Vietnam. Sheryl possessed probably an average knowledge of the Vietnam War for someone of our generation with a father who had served. We were both deeply moved by our time in Vietnam – moved not only by the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people but also by the privilege of better understanding our fathers’ experiences, of tracing our fathers’ footsteps.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City, arriving at the vast Tan Son Nhut International Airport, which still maintains its SGN designator. In fact, most everyone still calls the city Saigon, except for official state business.

After checking in to our hotel, just two blocks away from Rue Catinat, we excitedly began our exploration. Over the next two nights and a day we walked the city’s central district and saw so many famous sites from the war – from the Presidential Palace (now a museum known as Reunification Palace), to the old CIA headquarters (where the well-known 1975 helicopter evacuation photo was taken), to journalists’ hotels like the Caravelle, the Continental (where Graham Greene wrote and set The Quiet American) and the Rex where the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’ press briefings were held.

We also saw gorgeous colonial architecture including the City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office with its ornate maps. The Ben Thanh Market and War Remnants Museum were also on the docket. While walking the streets, quaint and busy, I imagined my father on his second tour as much of it was spent in Saigon. Sheryl’s father also served on the 7th Air Force staff out at Tan Son Nhut as the gunship tactics officer. It is truly wondrous to feel oneself in the same places, far across the ocean, as our fathers some fifty years previous.

While I toured the city and visited the tunnel system in the Iron Triangle’s Cu Chi district, Sheryl traveled out into the Mekong Delta and visited the Ap Bac battle site and took canoes and other small boats down the rivers and canals to exotic markets and riverside cafes. Sheryl returned from her day feeling the Mekong to be a very special and idiosyncratic part of the country.

Departing Saigon and heading north, we stopped for a quick visit at the gates of Bien Hoa airbase, which is now a Vietnamese military base. Sheryl’s father had also flown out of here. Next, we passed the sprawling American naval and air base at Camranh Bay, just south of Nha Trang, and observed a tremendous amount of building going on as many brand-name hotel conglomerates were taking up residence on this Vietnam Riviera.

We spent a wonderful night in Nha Trang, a large, lively city with miles of perfect beach and ocean water. We woke early to catch the morning light for pictures of fishing sampans and found, to our delight, thousands of locals out at 5 AM doing morning calisthenics, individually and in groups large and small. Throughout Vietnam we found the government provides plentiful exercise equipment in city parks, beach fronts, etc and the people make extensive use of them.

Driving further along the coast, we stopped in at Tuy Hoa. Sheryl’s father had flown AC-119s out of the American air base here in the autumn of 1969, providing close air support of ground operations along the central coast. A brand-new Vietnamese airport is there now, but the old American control tower still stands, near to the larger, modern one.

It took us several hours to drive up from the coast and into the Highlands. Along the way we went through many ethnic villages, Vietnam having over 80 official minorities. Each day we had lunch at ethnic cafes. Interestingly, while racism is rare, there is a certain amount of superiority felt by the majority Han Vietnamese for the minorities who are seen as less-educated, country or mountain-folk. In actuality, all the minorities can speak at least two languages, both their own and the national Vietnamese.

Over the next three days we explored much of the Central Highlands, near the Cambodian border. The experience of those days set the tone for the entire trip – we were so . . . enchanted is the word.

We were taken in with the surreal beauty of the changing landscapes as we traversed the country, from mountains to forests to river valleys to deltas to beaches. The people we met were warm, welcoming, inviting and ever so friendly. The food was rich and delicious and we were pleased to find that each region has its number of specialties. We took photos, hundreds and hundreds of photos. Of people, landscapes, modes of transportation, animals. And of battlefields and American bases (some abandoned and some now in use as Vietnamese civilian air and seaports).

In 1962, our fathers were in the Highlands, supporting the initial operations of the Special Forces and their montagnard and other highland allies. My dad helped put in much of the communications systems that would be expanded as the US presence grew in the out-years. Sheryl’s father operated out of Pleiku in that first tour. The modern airport at Pleiku sits directly atop the old American base and many buildings of the era survive, on the fringes and across the base on the high-ground that was the main compound throughout the 1960s.

From our base in Pleiku we visited the site of the first American battle of the war – LZ X-Ray out in the Ia Drang valley at the base of the Chu Pong Massif, a mountain astride the Vietnam-Cambodian border. I am a retired infantryman and this place, this fight always held a special interest for me. The stories of Hal Moore’s brave 7th Cavalry troopers in their challenging fight were later captured so well in Moore’s own book We Were Soldiers Once, And Young and the Mel Gibson movie of a similar name. It is a far, out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-path place, a destination unto itself to reach. But so well worth the effort. It is beautiful and calm today, with little to remark that such a desperate battle took place there 52 years ago.

In the Highlands, we also visited Kontum and Dak To, sites of numerous fights throughout the war, but especially so, for the latter place, in the autumn of 1967 as the North Vietnamese drew our forces into the countryside and away from the cities so they could conduct their Tet Offensive in January. Today, all that remains of the American war is the airfield at Dak To which the local villagers, when we were there, were using to dry acres of rice on its hot pavement.

A number of monuments to the battles in 1972 and 1975, that resulted in the fall of South Vietnam, mark Dak To, Kontum, Pleiku and, further south, Buon Ma Thuot. In the latter city, we also visited the charming quasi-theme park Trung Nguyen coffee plantation and shops. Nguyen is the Starbucks of Vietnam and we always found its drinks superb, wherever we traveled in the country, especially the new Legende with its condensed milk adding a velvety, cocoa-like smoothness.

From Pleiku we took a flight to Danang and were amazed at the dynamism of this growing city, third largest in the country. The gleaming airport sits atop the old American Phu Cat base and many buildings survive from that era. We drove south about 20 kilometers, past China Beach, to the beautiful town of Hoi An.

If you imagine this — women in the traditional ao dai dresses, incense burning in quaint buddhist temples, streets so small they are really just pedestrian alleyways, lanterns lit at dusk that light both the town and its river, and a majestic white-sand beach – then you are imagining Hoi An. It is the Vietnam we picture. We shopped, visited ancient temples and wooden Chinese bridges, relaxed on the pristine beach, ate extremely well, and investigated every winding street and local pagoda. Magical.

After two nights in Hoi An we drove north along the coast, back past Danang and on to Hue. It is a stupendous drive with incredible vistas; as is, by the way, most of the coastal route Highway 1 in the south. There are tremendous views around almost every corner.

We spent two nights in Hue and on the first day visited The Citadel. Home to Vietnam’s monarchy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was also the scene of some of the toughest fighting in the war – the urban combat of Tet 1968. One really gets a feel for the desperate combat as many parts of The Citadel remain shattered. The contrast between the majesty and power of the untouched portions of The Citadel to the destruction of the jagged walls, with stones still strewn nearby, was sobering.

The next day we headed up the coast toward the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 30-mile wide border area that stretched from the sea to the Laotian border and ostensibly was a no-contact area. In fact, it was hotly contested throughout the war. We drove up to Dong Ha, scene of the famed Marine Captain John Ripley’s exploits in the Easter Offensive of 1972, and then headed west passed the Marine outpost known as The Rockpile to the mountaintop of Khe Sanh, where surrounded US Marines held out against weeks of intense North Vietnamese attacks. As a memorial to the relentless struggle during Tet at Khe Sanh, the Vietnamese have established a rather single-perspective museum and artifacts (US helicopters, vehicles, weapons). While reminded of the struggle of the past, the views on the hilltop today are simply magnificent. While in the DMZ region, we also visited the nearly 2,000-meter long tunnel system at Vinh Moc. Much more extensive than those at Cu Chi (and more accessible to walk through and examine), these bear testament to the determination of the Vietnamese to survive and win against great odds.

We explored a Vietnamese military cemetery enroute back to Hue. It was surprising, although it should not have been, to find that all the burials were of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. The defeated South Vietnamese are buried in family plots or local cemeteries but are not commemorated in the national cemeteries. Ever thus is a civil war, I reflected.

In the morning, we flew from Hue’s airport, formerly the American Phu Bai base and soon landed in Hanoi and drove east to Halong Bay.

It is difficult to do justice to the ethereal beauty that is Halong Bay. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and rightly so. Its dramatic, jagged karst islands, by the thousands, rise out of the emerald water like so many twists of the dragon’s back. We took a chartered boat out onto the water and sailed past hundreds of the little islands, eventually halting at one and touring through a beautiful limestone cave. Back on the boat we continued our sail and eventually returned to dock. Some boats stay out for a night or two on the waters. Next time we will do that, as well. The word serene fits Halong perfectly.

Back in Hanoi the next day we checked into our hotel just a few short blocks south of the French and Old Quarters. This was a perfect location from which to explore the city on foot, and we did just that over the next two days. We visited art and literary museums, governmental buildings from French colonial days, the site where Lieutenant Commander John McCain was captured and the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison complex where he and so many other Americans were held. We were somewhat surprised to find it was located right in the very heart of the city. We also walked the beautiful boulevards of the French Quarter with its imposing St Joseph’s cathedral, and the tight, energetic streets of the Old Quarter and its famed market. Hanoi is a beautiful city of parks and markets and tree-lined streets, and stands in contrast to the brash young consumerism of Saigon. Both cities have amazing energy and a focus on the future while preserving the past.

Finally, our Vietnam expedition had come to an end and we made our way back home with comfortable flights to Taipei and Los Angeles and on to Denver. It had been an amazing two-week journey, filled with emotions and excitement. It is not every time that a place meets or exceeds the very high hopes one has for it. Vietnam most certainly exceeded our fondest hopes and expectations. The natural beauty of the land and sea, the incredibly warm and gracious people, and the historical sites of the centuries – all of these made our trip so very worthwhile.

Traveling this land, this place that so filled our lives and those of our families, was an incredible privilege. Vietnam had been wracked by near constant warfare from 1945-75, with millions of lives lost and a landscape transformed. Yet, the Vietnamese today are focused on the future and do not dwell upon the past. They are genuinely happy to see and share their country with Americans. To see with our eyes this amazing land, this spirit of reconciliation, accompanied throughout by the ghosts of our fathers, is what made this a trip of a lifetime.

We encourage veterans like our fathers and children of veterans, like us, to travel this beautiful country, to witness firsthand the reconciliation of the past, and to glimpse that past – and our fathers’ footsteps – through the lens of peace.

9 Sep 2015

Founding Fathers: A Cuba Travelogue

EHE partners Dr. Brian DeToy and Sheryl Rankin Shafer were recently published, along with several of Sheryl’s photos, in Destinations Travel Magazine! Check out the article entitled Founding Fathers: A Cuba Travelogue!

Cuba is hot this year. The Pearl of the Antilles is anticipating an influx of Americans out to discover this country so tantalizingly close yet prohibido for so long. Under the slight lifting of restrictions, my wife and I recently traveled there. As a retired history professor, I wished to visit a number of sites. We also operate a history- and culture-based tour company, Essential History Expeditions (, and were eager to determine if Cuba should be in our portfolio of fascinating tours.

Fidel Castro looms like a sine qua non presence in Cuban history, overshadowing all who came before. However, we found two Cubans who should hold equal sway. One, Jose Marti, (1853-95), is known as the “Apostle of Independence,” and his writings have formed the basis for nearly all Cuban political groups over the past 120 years, including Castroites and their arch-enemies. The other, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, (1819-74), known as the “Father of the Country,” is almost forgotten. On our trip we saw places important to each and began to understand how their images were created and why they diverged over the past century.

Our first stop was the southern city of Santiago de Cuba. A cradle of insurrections, Santiago is called the “City of Heroes.” Its lively heart is the Parque Cespedes, in the center of which is a bronze bust of its namesake. A wealthy, well-educated man, the sugar plantation owner was a first-generation Cuban or criollo (as opposed to a Spanish-born peninsulare) who sought the independence other Spanish-American colonies achieved a generation earlier.

In the centuries-old Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, Cespedes and Marti lie a hundred yards apart. Cespedes’ grave is an attractive memorial, fitting for a founding father. Marti’s is something else again. It is a gigantic, ornate mausoleum of Italian carrara marble. Think Grant’s tomb in Manhattan or Napoleon’s in Paris. Every half-hour soldiers conduct a ceremonial changing of the guard. Why the difference between the Padre de la Patria and the Apostol de la Independencia? The answer would come as we headed, like Castro in 1959, along a route through the provinces leading to Havana.

Driving in Cuba is a Back-to-the-Future endeavor. The roads are abysmal outside the cities and free-ranging farm animals often cross paths with a wide assortment of vehicles. Horse carts and huge buses, and tiny Trabants, tractors and trailer trucks. And hundreds of 1950s American cars, many gorgeously maintained. There are many billboards, most with messages from 1962 — Long Live the Glorious People’s Revolution! Or The Revolution Dignifies the Life of the Countryperson! Or Socialism or Death! Mile-after-mile on the highways, block-by-block within the cities, the billboards continue to . . . inspire. More numerous than billboards are busts of Marti. Invariably made of white-painted concrete, these stand by the thousands. Throughout our drives and walks, Marti’s head appeared in front of nearly every public edifice and park.

Cespedes finally has his day in our next stop, his birthplace town of Bayamo, capital of history-rich Granma province. Here is the square where Cespedes began the War of Independence. Here the National Anthem was written and first performed. Here is the town center, with buildings still fire-marked, where the citizens set their village ablaze rather than surrender to the Spaniards.

Cespedes reigns in Bayamo. His statue dominates the gorgeous town square, officially the Plaza de la Revolution but called Parque Cespedes. A plaque memorializes his reply to the Spanish when they captured his son. They wanted to exchange Oscar’s life for Céspedes’ resignation as President of the Cuban Republic. He famously answered that Oscar was not his only son because every Cuban who died in the revolution was also his son. The Spanish duly executed Oscar.

Like Santiago, Bayamo is a center of Cuban revolt. From Cespedes and Marti to Castro. Nearby is the field where Marti fell in battle and became a martyr as he initiated the second phase of the War of Independence in 1895. Fidel gave his penultimate public speech, in 2006, in Bayamo – memorializing the Revolution and the role of this province. Granma is named for the yacht that brought Castro’s 30 revolutionaries, including brother Raul and Che, from Mexico in 1956 to start the fight from a hideaway in the Sierra Maestre.

From our balcony overlooking the square, we could see the mist-shrouded mountains in the south. That night we sat on a park bench and watched men play chess and checkers as they sipped rum, observed single goats pull gaily-painted carts with several small children, and saw teenage lovers holding hands.

The next morning we entered Cespedes’ house, now a museum on the park and one of the few buildings to survive the 1869 immolation. We engaged the historian in a two hour give-and-take on the meaning of Cespedes. In an impassioned discourse, the young man explained Manuel’s coming of age as a reyoyo or second generation criollo in the 1820s-40s, his Barcelona university education and travels through Europe in a revolutionary age. Cespedes was a changed young man when he returned to Bayamo and took over the family sugar plantations, merchant houses and fortune. A generational split between those who supported the traditional Spanish power structure in Cuba and those who were emboldened by the revolutionary ideas of Europe and South America was occurring throughout Cuba. A full-blown revolutionary, with a plan for a free, independent Cuban government, Manuel was soon under close watch by the Spanish authorities and imprisoned several times.

The ground shifted in the mid-1860s. Demand for Cuban sugar plummeted and many plantations failed. The island was primed for revolution, and in 1868 the spark was a coup in Madrid that led to governmental change across the Atlantic. Cespedes exhorted his fellow conspirators: “This is the time and this is our chance. Gentlemen, the hour is solemn and decisive. The power of Spain is decrepit and worm-eaten; if it still appears great and strong to us, it is because for more than three centuries we have contemplated it from our knees. So … Rise! This is the time!”

The Governor, hearing of impending revolt, sent a telegraph message on October 8th across all of Cuba which said, in essence: No matter who rules in Madrid, Cuba must remain Spanish; arrest all conspirators. When the Bayamo operator, Cespedes’ nephew, received the telegram, he quickly informed Manuel that he was on the arrest list. That night Cespedes and a few close compatriots wrote their “Manifest of the Cuban Revolution Joint to its Country Fellows and the Nations of the World.” On the 10th, Cespedes went to his sugar mill at Demarra and, joined by 250 men, free and slave, he addressed the crowd and unveiled Cuba’s founding national document. Independence! Cespedes then went a step further. “My brothers,” he proclaimed to his slaves, “Until today I have been a Lord of Men. From today on, I will be a servant of the people! You are all free!” The call to freedom and action is known as the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, after a nearby town).

I had one last question — Why is Jose Marti so much more prevalent than Cespedes? “Ahh,” said the young historian, “that is because Fidel, he is a bicho.” A bicho? “Yes, a buck; a very clever and capable man, one who can read the people. Fidel recognized that the Cuban people have a greater love for Marti than any other man. He spoke to their hearts and spirits as no one else had.” Further, the disgraced Batista regime, overthrown in 1959, had appropriated both Marti and Cespedes, as all Cuban governments must; but, in their higher elevation of Cespedes, they allowed Fidel to wrap himself in Marti’s mantle. The Castros have maintained their revolution was the logical outgrowth of all Marti wrote and aspired to: Latin America for Latin Americans, without Yanqui interference. Yes, they say, Cespedes is important; but Marti is the true embodiment of Cuba.

Marti was born in Havana to a Spanish father and a Canary Islands mother. Young Jose was influenced by ideas of liberty and independence. Importantly, he thought about what type of society Cuba would have in that independent state. When Cespedes’ War of Independence began, Marti contributed to the cause in debate and poetry and was jailed as a traitor. At 18, exiled from Cuba by the Spanish, he began a nomadic existence across both sides of the Atlantic, constantly in support of the Cuban cause. He spent over a decade in the US as a poet, novelist, pamphleteer, journalist and editor. Marti’s time in America, especially in New York and Tampa where he organized the expatriate Cuban community, gave him strong feelings for and against US-style democracy and economic rights. He saw much to admire and much to deplore, and developed a philosophy for a Cuban system. His prolific writings kept the embers of rebellion going and eventually led to renewing the War for Independence. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes organized and fought for a free Cuba. But Jose Marti put a philosophy behind his dream and led through inspiring words and decisive action. And although both men died in the cause, Cespedes’ revolution failed, while Marti’s triumphed. And nothing succeeds like success.
From Bayamo, we traveled the length of the country, spending nights in rough Camaguey, beautiful, French-influenced Cienfuegos and Playa Larga on the Bahia dos Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Each location brought more of the same: a park or statue named for Cespedes and a multitude of references to Marti.

The Bay of Pigs, scene of the ill-fated CIA-backed counterrevolution in April 1961, is an hour’s drive from Cienfuegos and enroute we observed farm workers drying rice right on the roadway. The museum in Playa Giron, a main invasion beach along with Larga, is over-the-top in terms of propaganda with little perspective balance. But the heartbreaking stories of Cubans in the region under the Batista regime are nicely juxtaposed with inspiring ones of what has happened in the area since 1961.
Departing Larga, we headed to our final destination on this incredible journey – La Habana. We spent three days and nights in the capital and were overwhelmed with its beauty, vibrancy and history. We walked the famed oceanside Malecon esplanade, climbed about the El Morro and La Cabana fortifications, and visited the Tropicana nightclub and the art deco Hotel Nacional. We dined at phenomenal paladars, privately-owned restaurants emerging since Raul Castro provided a small opening in the prohibition of private enterprise.

Again, Jose Marti dominated the personality debate. A fairly new statue stands before the American Embassy along the Malecon – Marti is holding a child, Elian Gonzalez, and pointing accusingly at the Americans. Gonzalez was the boy whose US immigration in 1999, and subsequent repatriation to Cuba the following year, caused an enormous international imbroglio. A few miles away, the Plaza de la Revolution lies in obeisance before a tremendous monumental hilltop tower. At the base, looking downhill at the plaza and the city beyond, is a large, brooding Marti. Facing him, across the plaza, are two iconic artworks dedicated to Castro revolutionaries. One is the world-famous Argentinean, Che Guevara. The other is the more enigmatic Cuban Camilo Cienfuegos. A young Cuban told us, “Che, as a foreigner, was no threat to Fidel, and would soon be off to fight in other lands. Camilo, however, was almost as important to the Cuban people as the Castros.” A famed guerrilla, Camilo was associated with revolutionaries who were not enamored with Fidel’s seemingly abrupt embrace of orthodox Communism. The young man continued, “Most of us believe Fidel had Cienfuegos ‘disappeared,’ as Camilo took off on a flight in 1961, on a mission directed by Castro, and no trace of plane or man was ever seen again.”

An old adage opines ‘revolutions eat their young.’ Perhaps. What is not in doubt is that Castro embraced a cult of Jose Marti and, essentially, ‘disappeared’ Manuel de Cespedes. In the US we have our own sense of ambivalence towards the “Father of our Country.” George Washington is seemingly marble, aloof, unknowable. We do not memorize his speeches and writings. We admire him for leading our armies in the War of Independence and guiding our early years as a republic. But we do not love him. Instead, our affection is pointed towards the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. We love his coming-of-age tale, his homespun western sensibility and his steely grit in carrying the nation through its most harrowing days. We know Lincoln’s stories, his brilliant writing and, more than anything, his heartfelt speeches. He is the embodiment of America. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in downtown Havana’s Parque de la Fraternidad, in which each American nation placed a bust of one of its leaders, the United States sent one of Abraham Lincoln. Maybe each country has its Cespedes and Marti, its Washington and Lincoln.


Dr. Brian DeToy is a retired Army officer who most recently ran the Defense & Strategic Studies program at the US Military Academy, West Point. He is an author and historian, with an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and a PhD from Florida State in European History. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries focused on various aspects of history. Brian has led more than 150 tours of over 50 cities and battlefields on three continents.

Sheryl Rankin Shafer is a freelance writer, researcher and editor focusing on educational leadership and business marketing communications. She has leadership experience in the start-up phase of multiple corporate and nonprofit businesses, both as a consultant and as a member of the board of directors. She is currently president of an education software company; her published work focuses on the education field. She holds an MA in in Leadership, Policy and Politics from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a Master of Nonprofit Management from Regis University.
Together, Brian and Sheryl own and operate Essential History Expeditions, a small tour company focusing on high-end guided travel to explore the history and culture of countries, cities and battlefields around the world. For more information, including upcoming trips to Cuba, visit

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