Meet Colonel Timothy H. Donovan

Sunday, April 24, 2011
Interview And Story By: Randall H. Miller
Colonel Timothy H. DonovanOn the afternoon of November 1st, 1969, 1st platoon of Charlie Troop, 10th Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division, was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces. Charlie Troop’s Commander, Captain Timothy H. Donovan (Norwich University class of 1962), instinctively ordered his remaining soldiers to counterattack and simultaneously maneuvered his headquarters element into the heart of the action. As the battle unfolded, a North Vietnamese sniper (waiting patiently in a “spider hole”) managed to squeeze off a round from his AK-47 that would forever change the face of the United States Military.

The bullet entered through the seam of Captain Donovan’s flack jacket, broke several ribs, burst his left lung, and pierced his pulmonary artery before riddling its way down his spinal column and lodging itself in his spleen. A few hours (and several heroes) later, an Army surgeon stood over a bloody M.A.S.H. operating table and declared that it was “too late for this one.” His plans changed when Donovan (with two collapsed lungs) reached up and grabbed him by the throat with his right hand. In that instance, the fate of countless service men and women changed forever.


Colonel Timothy H. Donovan (born in Bristol, Connecticut, and thankfully rejected by the United States Coast Guard Academy) is a 1962 graduate of Norwich University. A member of the prestigious Mountain Cold Weather Rescue Team [2], the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity (back in the day when NU had fraternities), and Kilo Company (an affiliation that, after conducting this interview, I’m convinced he’s most proud of), Colonel Donovan is a mentor and source of inspiration to countless Norwich grads. In addition, he also taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he trained cadets with last names like Petraeus [3], McCrystal [4], and Odierno [5].
Straight to the chase – Colonel Donovan’s career (and life) should have ended on that table in Viet Nam. Instead, he left indelible marks on the entire military over the next twenty four years. Do you like the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank [6]? Colonel Donovan’s fingerprints are all over it. Do you have an appreciation for Special Operations Command (SOCOM) [7]? Colonel Donovan, at the behest of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (with the personal backing of President Ronald Reagan), took it from concept to reality in one year. As a warrior-scholar, he also contributed several chapters to a textbook on the U.S. Civil War (The American Civil War, Avery Press, Wayne, N.J., 1987 T.H. Donovan, et al). Not bad for a soldier with “permanent disabilities.”


Colonel D’s father (Timothy H. Donovan, Sr.) served honorably in World War I with the 4th Infantry Division. When he returned, his wife (Mary Donovan), presented him with a hand-sewed replica of the 4th ID Unit Patch as a keepsake. Fifty years later, upon learning of his son’s assignment to the same unit, he blew the dust off of his padlocked foot locker, retrieved the patch (a modest piece of stitching on plain, olive drab cloth) and passed it along to his son (seen on the right, moments before donating it to the 4th Infantry Division Museum [8]). Ironically, and unbeknownst to Colonel Donovan until the formal ceremony, the Norwich class of 1993 would eventually honor him by including the 4th Infantry Division unit patch (his patch) on its ring.
Donovan in Viet Nam


What follows are the highlights from our recent hour-long phone conversation.

RHM: You once told me about a conversation you had with your South Vietnamese counterpart where he expressed optimism that the war would “be over soon.” But when you pressed him for more information, he replied that “soon” meant another 15 or 20 years. Clearly, many other cultures have more patience than Americans. Do you see any parallels to Viet Nam and the current conflicts in Iraq and especially Afghanistan?

Colonel Donovan: Actually I said to my counterpart, Capt Dung (pronounced Young) in the summer of 1966, “at this rate the war will be over soon.” He answered “yes, in maybe 20 or 30 years,” without a smile; dead serious.

We Americans seem to think that other countries are just like us with a central government elected by the people, etc. In Afghanistan especially, that is far from the reality. That part of the world is tribal and culturally quite different. The ruling framework hasn’t changed in centuries, if not eons. The Afghan tribes aren’t even similar, speaking several languages, and with different mores, customs, and religions. It is an extremely complex region.

Vietnam had many different sects and religions and cultures, but nothing like Afghanistan. For centuries, the Afghans have seen foreign armies come and go. For the US and NATO to prevail, we must recognize that this is going to be slow and deliberate work, one village, one province, one region at a time. It will be done by teaching native people how to have a better way of life; by teaching them how to have security in order to protect their families. It’s more teaching than fighting. I think that the common human denominator (security and pursuit of happiness) is the way to success in Afghanistan. Sounds like a job for lots of SOF (Special Operations Forces) types.
Instead of having lawyers assigned to planning staffs, we need cultural anthropologists.

RHM: Do you think we’re doing enough for our returning veterans when it comes to health care and educational benefits?

Colonel Donovan: I think the new GI Bill will help a great deal. Finding jobs for returning veterans should be a top priority for everyone. The injuries in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom are different than in other wars. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is more common because of the type of IED’s used. Health care for veterans must be in place and protected. Remember, that in World War II almost 20% of the country was in uniform fighting the enemy, and all at home were in support. If you were too young to join, you were a plane spotter or a bicycle messenger; too old you were an Air Raid Warden or a Civil Defense volunteer. Today, less than 1% of our country is in uniform. We owe them an awful lot.

Colonel Donovan Bn CMD The picture on the left was taken in Schweinfurt, Germany, when LTC Donovan was commanding the 3rd Battalion/64th Armor (1978). They were on full alert. At the end of the lanyard that disappears into his shirt is a Cold War era CEOI (Communications-Electronics Operating Instructions) which contained the unit’s “go to war” call signs and frequencies.

The jeep is an old M151, which is very similar to the one procured for the Norwich University Corps of Cadets by retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Duke Dewey.
RHM: Do you remember what happened after you were wounded?
Colonel Donovan: When I went down I knew it was bad, real bad. My medic, Gary Redding, was right there, but there wasn’t much he could do. When the sniper shot me, it triggered (no pun intended) a new firefight. Somebody was over me firing an M-16 and the hot brass was hitting me in the face (funny what you remember). I was still in command and trying to get the word to my guys, but they were doing fine. When the Huey came in to the midst of it to get me out, I turned command over to a platoon leader. My 1SGT sent me a letter a few weeks after with some pictures. C Troop definitely won the day.
RHM: Do you know what happened to the sniper who shot you?
Colonel Donovan: Yes. Before I hit the ground (in about a second and a half), my 1SGT sent that very brave and courageous soldier from North Vietnam to his heaven.
RHM: When it comes to National Security, what keeps you up at night?
Colonel Donovan: Our lack of unity in fighting this war. What’s the saying? “The Army and the Marine Corps are at war, America’s at the Mall, and Congress is on vacation.” We seem to think that it’s somebody else’s job to protect our freedom, not everybody’s job and duty to protect it. That’s very disturbing to me.
Alden Partridge
RHM: Norwich has a long history (going back to 1819) of producing military and civilian leaders who accomplish great things. How will Norwich’s role change in the 21st Century?
Colonel Donovan: Norwich has always led the Nation in producing citizens with the skills needed for the time and to meet the current challenge. Whether it was railroad engineers and inventors in the 19th century, to soldiers, industrialists, and visionaries in the 20th century, Norwich has been the educational pioneer. Since its founding in 1819, it has been the revolutionary, not evolutionary, leader in American education. That’s what it will do in this century too.
Conclusion: I had a lot of fun catching up with Colonel Donovan for this interview. Since retiring in 1993, he traded in his tank for a fishing boat. However, he remains very active as a teacher and currently has about 50 students (including many of his neighbors) in the Virginia area that attend his lectures and field trips to various historical sites. Colonel Donovan is also an avid Facebooker and loves to keep in touch with Norwich folks.


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