Next weekend Wyoming’s Vietnam War veterans will receive the “Welcome Home” many believe they deserved but didn’t get upon returning from that war. Governor Matt Mead said the June 4-7 event in Casper, “gives us a time to right that wrong.” Mead’s correct. These vets never received a proper welcome home.
U.S. vets aren’t alone in feeling the ingratitude of their countrymen. “There had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music. That might have been tolerated but not the disrespect shown them.” Boa Ninh, a former North Vietnamese fighter, wrote of the reception received by Vietcong troops when they returned home in a book well worth reading, “The Sorrow of War.”
I am immersed in Vietnam War history, writing a biography of Gale McGee, a three-term Wyoming Senator and leading congressional proponent of the war from the time President Eisenhower sent in the first “advisors,” through JFK’s decision that expanded America’s commitment, LBJ’s escalation, and Nixon’s unsuccessful effort to win the war by “bombing Vietnam back into the stone age.”
Reading at least a dozen accounts of the war and its aftermath, books written at the time and others upon years of reflection, historical works by academics and memoirs of U.S. and Vietnamese vets, three conclusions emerge. The first is that Mead is right. Our soldiers didn’t receive the gratitude they deserved for the sacrifices they made.
Second, while the courage of those who served cannot be thereby diminished, all Americans and Vietnamese living during those years and subsequent generations are, in a very real way, Vietnam’s veterans.
Nearly three million Americans served during the war, meaning nearly three million American families also served. The names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in that war are etched on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. A piece of 58,000 American families died with them. The wives, children, and parents of soldiers who returned with physical and emotional injuries or didn’t return at all are veterans of that awful war.
Artist Chris Burden created a little-known work of art titled “The Other Vietnam Memorial,” displaying names of 3 million Vietnamese who died on battlefields. They and their families are likewise veterans of the war whose sacrifices beg recognition.
Half a century has come and gone. A historical perspective enables an acknowledgement that those who took the risks accompanying a refusal to serve are also veterans of Vietnam. Those called “draft-dodgers” had something important to say, as did the protesters hoping to end the war. The failure of politicians to listen had measureable consequences for our country.
Reconciliation demands that military veterans receive the gratitude they earned. It also requires acknowledging the sacrifices of those who demurred. Imagine an asterisk on the Vietnam Memorial Wall leading to the names of the four students killed at Kent State. That would be real reconciliation.
Vietnam’s veterans also include those who, like me, are troubled to this day because we “knew someone who knew someone” who found us a safe slot in a reserve unit. Add those enjoying loopholes that allowed the wealthy and connected to avoid the draft, those Creedence Clearwater Revival called “Fortunate Sons.” We “veterans” made hauntingly risk-free choices unlike those who chose to go to the streets, to Canada, or to the battlefield.
A third conclusion is that the war didn’t end properly. The failure to give its veterans a proper return is evidence as is the lingering disdain for those who protested. So is the way Americans swept the war, its causes, and its consequences under the nation’s rug.
America’s inelegant withdrawal shouldn’t have been our last memory. The war should’ve ended with an honest national dialogue about why we fought, what was gained, and what was lost. Instead we simply hoped it would go away.
It’s taken fifty years to get around to next weekend’s reunion in Casper. Perhaps in another fifty, America will actually end the Vietnam War with a genuine reconciliation and acknowledge the sacrifices of all of its many veterans.