Editor’s note: The following eulogy was given by the author following Col. Hackworth’s recent death. The Reader’s Digest article referenced below was published under Catherine O’Neill’s former married name, Catherine Aspy.
I first learned of Col. Hackworth in 1996 as a soldier in the U.S. Army. My squad leader, a Special Forces soldier, told me about a terrific book that got him “pumped-up” and caused him to re-enlist. He then loaned me his copy of “About Face,” by Col. David Hackworth, and it graced my coffee table for the following months, during which time I separated from active duty, had a baby, watched too much television and became outraged by media coverage ostensibly of women in the military.
Since it bore little relation to the reality I witnessed and experienced, I increasingly felt the need to speak out on the issues, but saw no viable way to enter the debate. Meanwhile, I read enough of “About Face” to realize that Col. Hackworth possessed not only divinely powered soldiering skills as a combat superhero, but also tremendous integrity and moral courage to tell the truth and act upon his convictions with no fear of the consequences. I felt drawn to him as a personality, but had no idea how to find him. Then one day I heard Col. Hackworth talking on television, and I leaped for joy in the living room.
Soon after this, I sent Hack an e-mail stating that I wanted to speak out about my experience in the Army. He responded quickly with a very favorable reply. I wrote back, “What do I do?” Hack answered, “I thought you were going to write for my weekly e-mail newsletter.” “Great!” I replied, and we hit the deck running. I wrote my first article for him in a matter of days and became obsessed with reading and writing about the military every possible moment, all hours of the day and night.
Col. Hackworth worked closely with me through what became an incredible journey. Hack led and guided me through the unfamiliar terrain and set me up for some remarkable victories. So, rather than degenerating into some kind of desperate housewife, I instead transformed into a military reform crusader thanks to one man, Col. David Hackworth.
I never could have hoped for nor dreamed of a better mentor than Hack. His continual encouragement for all of my efforts in life matched only his wisdom, professional skill and practical help with every detail. His incredible responsiveness, combined with his knowledge and strength, gave me a sense of security and inner peace.
When I first started this journey, I really didn’t know much beyond my own experience, but I had an academic background and the desire to learn everything. However, living in rural isolation with few resources, I had no idea of how or where to begin. Hack took me under his wing and, step-by-step, launched what became an exceptional career.
He forwarded me articles and letters from troops and guided my research. He also sent me a box of important materials involving women in the military, which helped me enormously for years to come. It contained books, some of his Newsweek articles and a large collection of newspaper clippings. On some articles, he wrote humorous notes that I enjoyed. Hack had a wonderful sense of humor.
When I first started working with Col. Hackworth, I threw myself into reading his writings and became in great awe of this amazing man, of his unique role in history and his irreplaceable mission as a truth teller and reformer. The only comparison to Hack’s brilliance, eloquence and conviction that occurred to me was Socrates in Plato’s “Apology.” What Socrates was to Athens, Col. Hackworth was to America. So, I sent Hack the following quote in which Socrates explained his mission:
I was attached to this city by the god … as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in this city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.
At first Hack didn’t seem too thrilled with my comparison, but then, in his column a few weeks later, he referred to himself as a gadfly, which delighted me.
Col. Hackworth possessed many extraordinary abilities even beyond his military training expertise and tactical genius. For instance, Hack received e-mail from 800 to 1,000 warriors per week and, even though it sounds impossible to me, he actually read this massive amount of e-mail from what I could tell, in addition to writing his columns and books. He seemed to respond to every single e-mail, either directly or by forwarding messages to like-minded individuals.
He sent me inquiries he received about women in the military, and I replied to the senders that I was Col. Hackworth’s point girl on the subject. Then I found myself on the phone, helping high-school students prepare for a debate or an infantryman turned nurse write a college paper on the draft. Col. Hackworth caused massive networks to spring up all around him. He seemed to keep straight the thousands of people who contacted him and remembered names, too.
Col. Hackworth lived a supercharged, supernaturally powered life. Hack never missed 1/32nd of a beat, nothing slowed him down a millisecond. Aside from surviving shrapnel, bullets, explosions, fires and every combat hazard, he also sailed above head colds and other human maladies that hinder the rest of us. He remarked to me once that he worked 14-hour days in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and still managed to write a column. I thought, “What do I know? I’m just mortal.”
Col. Hackworth caused exciting horizons to open up in my life. An article that I wrote for Hack was forwarded to Reader’s Digest. They called me, and I began working with them. By the time Reader’s Digest published the article, in February 1999, I authored it. This article gave me instant fame, and a whole media world opened-up. A guest on a variety of local and national radio programs, I even had some TV appearances.
Whenever I approached Hack with excitement over a particular media contact, he would reply that the TV personality or national radio talk-show host was “a good friend.” It stunned me to think that Hack knew everybody in the media world, but then I noticed that he himself appeared on virtually every radio program and TV channel. His clear speaking-style made him a great communicator.
My Reader’s Digest article opened up another exciting world. After the Salem, Ore., newspaper ran an article about it, local veterans tracked me down and my involvement in veterans’ organizations began. I joined American Legion Pioneer Post No. 149 in Salem, an all-women veterans post, and served as chair of the Americanism Committee. In 2002, I became post commander. I also became active in the Greater Salem Area Veterans Organization and experienced one of the high points of my life delivering the 2003 Memorial Day Speech in the state capitol.
Getting to know and work with so many outstanding veterans gave my life a rich depth and texture that I never could have before imagined. My work with Soldiers For The Truth had the same wonderful effect. How else would I have ever found great men like Roger Charles, Carl Bernard and Keith McWilliams?
Yet, my odyssey, inspired and directed by Col. Hackworth, would have an even more astonishing turn. In 2002, the Bush administration revamped and rechartered the Defense Department Advisery Committee on Women in the Services, or DACOWITS. A retired Army colonel, who I knew through Hack, unexpectedly called me two days before the deadline. I mentioned offhand this position and he became emphatic that I apply for it. So, I quickly pulled together a resume and faxed in an application with hours to spare.
Weeks later, the Pentagon called and invited me to interview for DACOWITS, but I had to arrange the trip from Oregon by myself. A tidal wave of encouragement from Col. Hackworth and Soldiers For The Truth supporters carried me forward and made the trip a success. Then, in October 2002, I received notification that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had appointed me to the committee. Hack was delighted. As a DACOWITS member, I have protocol status of a three-star general or admiral. Col. Hackworth said he was proud of me and called me “general.”
Thus, Col. Hackworth was the catalyst for all of these amazing developments in my life. From dust and ashes, Col. Hackworth made me into a writer and commentator with national notoriety and three-star general status. I am a professional Cinderella story, thanks to my combined fairy godfather and Prince – the non-perfumed variety – Charming, Col. David Hackworth.
Finally, I want to thank Eilhys England [Col. Hackworth’s widow] for your phenomenal generosity and for allowing me to speak today. As I grieve the loss of my leader, my hero, my mentor, my friend, I cannot imagine what you must be feeling. Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you, now and always.
Catherine L. O’Neill, formerly Catherine L. Aspy, is a Harvard graduate and former U.S. Army intelligence analyst.