March 29 is a time to recognize America’s Vietnam War veterans
A young Marine private waits on the beach during Marine landing in Da Nang during the Vietnam War. (National Archives)
When many Vietnam veterans returned home from serving their country, they were met with indifference, even hostility. The war had divided the public and feelings ran high over that ill-fated war, particularly in the late 1960s and continuing for more than a decade. It was an ugly war that took the lives of 58,220 U.S. service personnel, including 251 with connections to the state of Idaho. Hundreds of thousands more came home with serious injuries, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse addictions, suicidal tendencies and conditions that would later develop into cancer or other illness.
Most vets went about the process of integrating back into society, getting jobs, setting up businesses, resuming their education and starting families. Many had trouble doing any of that, mainly because of scars from the war, but also because of the stigma of having served in an unpopular war. Over the years, I’ve run into some who refused for a long time to admit they had served there, thinking it was something shameful.
I’ve always been proud of my Vietnam service, but I learned early on not to speak much about it. In the last several years, I’ve found it easier to write of my experience, both in newspaper columns and in my book, “Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind.” Ask any veteran, war experience accompanies you throughout your life.
After my tour, I thought we had reduced the Communist threat. It appeared the South Vietnamese were on the road to success when the last American combat troops were withdrawn on March 29, 1973. President Richard Nixon gave the South Vietnamese assurances of a steady supply of weapons and muscular air support if the North Vietnamese launched a massive invasion. In fact, we starved them for weapons and failed to provide the promised air support when the North attacked in March of 1975. April 30, when the entire country fell to Communist forces, was one of the worst days of my life. The casualties of the war – dead, wounded, missing and scarred – had seemingly been in vain.
Many of us have also grieved for the Vietnamese, both soldiers and civilians, who suffered and died during the war and in its cruel aftermath. I had lived and served with South Vietnamese troops and trusted them with my life. I felt we had betrayed them. Over 300,000 of their servicemen and hundreds of thousands of civilians died during the war and many more suffered grievously in the following years. Those feelings of betrayal persist. An article in the January issue of the VFW Magazine is titled “Ashamed of Our Government for This Betrayal.” The article contains comments on that theme by a number of Vietnam veterans. I am in agreement. But, we must move on.
In 2017, Congress passed the National Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Day Act, setting March 29 as a day to recognize the service of Vietnam veterans. It was a gracious, though belated, gesture. The day will be observed in communities across the country this year.
The recognition by Congress is appreciated, but what would be of much greater value is a recognition of the limits of our power. That is, recognizing the folly of sending many thousands of American troops into combat without knowing what our objectives are, or how to achieve them and at what cost. Had we heeded the lessons that were obvious from our disastrous Vietnam experience, we most certainly would have avoided the war of choice in Iraq. We would not have gotten mired down in Afghanistan for two decades. Learning from past mistakes and not repeating them would be the very best recognition for veterans.
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