Vietnam Veterans Day – On March 29 each year, we honor those who faced hardships abroad — and at home
To paraphrase the late Winston Churchill, never did two simple words mean so much to so many.
It is 50 years to the day that the last of the American troops departed from Vietnam. The long war resulted in more than 50,000 killed, tens of thousands more wounded and missing, and hundreds of thousands more bringing awareness to a new disorder, PTSD.
And yet, the more than 3 million men — and women — who served came back to a divided homeland, with many of their countrymen treating them like lepers.
It took until 2012, when a proclamation was issued naming March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day, for there finally to be a day set aside to honor them.
Special events have sprung up in recent years, like concerts and family-fun days, many acting as fundraisers to help needy Veterans and their loved ones.
Quietly, though, behind the scenes, many unsung Americans have found ways of their own to thank our Vietnam Veterans for their service,
The honor these Veterans has been long overdue. It is gratifying that even now, when they’re in their golden years, they are finally shown our thanks.
The fight against communism
Vietnam Veterans were born during the World War II and Korean War years, for the most part. They were the children of the Greatest Generation, and they were brought up to believe in the defense of our nation above all else.
Post-modernist writers, academics and pundits like to paint this belief as some kind of twisted jingoism, and that communism represented a viable, and “better,” way to self-govern.
The truth is that communism posed a very real threat around the world after the Korean War — itself fought to prevent a communist takeover.
Leaders of big and influential countries like the USSR and East Germany made no secret of their intention to turn the entire world into one vast “paradise” of total control. They began taking over nation after nation, installing puppet governments, to achieve this aim. Vulnerable countries fell with frightening frequency, threatening the freedom — once again — of the entire world.
Only the United States still had the resources and manpower to organize opposition to this threat, whether we liked it or not. Most of us saw the threat, and though we were not happy about being the “world’s policeman,” we felt it was our duty to stand up against it.
Hindsight has taught us that the task in Southeast Asia was more complex than we had anticipated, but we believed in “give me liberty or give me death.”
Battlefields and guerrillas
Americans had been embedded in Indochina from the time the French withdrew in 1954. The Viet Minh revolutionaries took over northern Vietnam, and the U.S. send advisors and military aid to the opposition in the South.
By the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam was fielding 40,000 troops against the South, and President Kennedy amped up the American advisory presence.
One of these soldier-advisers was retired Army Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, of Cocoa, who is a Medal of Honor recipient from the War (as related in past Veteran Voice articles). The highly decorated soldier continues to appear at occasional speaking engagements to share his experiences and his patriotism. For him, being an “adviser” meant being a combatant.
There were a number of significant major battles, beginning in 1965 with the Battle of La Drang, and included the Battles of Khe Sanh and Hue, which was part of the larger Tet Offensive.
For the first time, American forces had to contend not only with conventional troops, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but also an equally sizeable guerrilla force, the Viet Cong.
Our troops had to contend with motivated enemies well entrenched in their home turf, in countryside that was alien to Americans.
Historians have argued, and will continue to argue, why American troops were finally withdrawn, and why we “lost” the War. The truth is, the Vietnam War represented a sea change between the set-piece big battles of World War II and Korea to the mixture of conventional versus unconventional warfare that has changed the face of warfare itself, and our troops were at the sharp end.
The times they were a-changin’
At home, an equally seismic shift was taking place.
After World War II, the G.I. Bill meant that more Americans than ever in history began attending colleges and universities. It was a point of pride for the Greatest Generation to give their children access to the best education possible.
College campuses became hotbeds of post-modernist ideologies, which rebelled against the conformism of the 1950s and sowed the seeds of rebellion in an already rebellion-prone cohort of young adults.
The national draft became the epicenter of resentment and, along with women’s liberation and the Civil Rights movement, made a perfect storm of social upheaval. Rank-and-file troops became the target of national anger. By now, we are all aware of the treatment they received at the hands of their “brethren.”
Vietnam Veterans not only believed in defending our national interests, but believed that our national values, including the right to protest, should also be protected. They had fought bravely overseas, but were powerless to do anything against the onslaught of national fury. This, added to their wartime suffering, contributed to the emergence of PTSD as a terrible bond shared by so many of these Veterans.
Divided we (still) stand
Thankfully, though our nation is politically divided as never before, we are united in at least one thing — the belated recognition of the contributions of our Vietnam Veterans. Many are involved in this effort.
One such group, working tirelessly behind the scenes, includes the volunteers with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Together with scientists of all descriptions, hundreds of volunteers are dedicated to finding, and identifying, the remains of Vietnam (and Korean War) Veterans in Indochina.
Each year, expeditions must be carefully planned before teams go out in the field to search for remains. Today’s Vietnamese government has worked side by side with Americans in this task.
The work is hard, and the rewards few. In 2020, only 218 sets of remains were located, before being sent to labs in Hawaii for DNA analysis. Other finds proved helpful, though, such as aircraft parts, in filling in historical gaps. But the bottom line is the search will continue until the last Veteran is accounted for. For this reason, POW/MIA Day also continues to be a crucial element of honoring Vietnam and all Veterans. (For more information on the agency’s efforts, visit taskandpurpose.com/military-life/american-soldiers-missing-in-action/).
Another grassroots effort more widely known is Honor Flights. Originally begun in 2005 to ferry World War II Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorial sites, the gradual decline in those Veterans’ numbers led to including Korean War Veterans, and now Vietnam Veterans are welcomed into the honored ranks.
In the Veteran Voice readership, both Southeast Florida Honor Flight and Space Coast Honor Flight conduct up to six flights per year, averaging 70 Veterans and an equal number of guardians on a “trip of a lifetime.” There they visit memorials to World War II, Korea and of course, The Wall and the Three Servicemen statue.
On their return to Florida, crowds of well-wishers overwhelm the Veterans with cheers, handshakes, hugs and flags, leaving many in tears. Everyone is welcome to participate, and all are changed by the experience.
This year, 50th Anniversary commemorations include several national events in Washington, D.C., and around the country, including Florida. Continuing through May, many “Welcome Home” events are slated to take place.
On this Vietnam Veterans Day, the thanks may be belated, but they are deep and heartfelt. These Veterans have earned their honored place in history.
PHOTO CREDIT: National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons – A National Park Service volunteer uses paper and a graphite stick to obtain a rubbing of a name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., known as “the Wall,” on behalf of a family member unable to visit themselves.