Vietnam Veterans: Remembrance and Respect

Above artwork: “Reflections” by Lee Teter (open edition)

CDR Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret)

Today’s post is an opinion piece. I invite you to comment respectfully and share your thoughts and experiences on the subject!

As a youth, I was a voracious reader and loved to learn–but in the 1960’s there was no Internet, no 24/7 news service, and I can remember when we got our first color television, the first time we got to use the second knob on the television (the one with channels 14-83), and those funny new “rabbit ear” antennas with the loops between the telescoping antennae. I can also remember growing up and seeing the reports on the evening news about the conflict in Vietnam.

Back then, it was a distant conflict for many Americans–even more distant than the battlefields of World War II and, perhaps, less familiar than those of the Korean Conflict. Maybe because my family had a long history of military service and I grew up in a household that showed respect for the military I had a difficult time understanding the disrespect shown to our service men and women when they returned stateside from their overseas tours–and also shown to those who served at home base in between tours to the war zone or other supporting overseas locations. To me, it was an inappropriate showing of disrespect to people who had risked their lives for our national security policy–many of whom had no choice because of the selective service process; however, I assumed myself to be part of the majority, not the minority, as many of my friends and acquaintances had a parent or grandparent who service in World War II, Korea, or even World War I (once called the “war to end all wars”).

During World War II the peninsula where Vietnam is located was called French Indochina, a remnant of the imperial era of European powers. By the late 1950’s the Eisenhower administration began sending advisers into South Vietnam to assist the South Vietnamese government in training and other assistance to counter the spread of Communism which had infiltrated North Vietnam with the assistance of the Soviet Union. This continued–and grew–until 1965, when President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara made the decision to go “all-in” and dramatically increase America warfighting presence in Vietnam. A major class exercise at the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, AL, provides senior military officers with the historical events leading up to strategic decisions in 1965 that made America a major participant in the Vietnam conflict, which the challenge to determine alternate strategic courses of action that could have resulted in differing outcomes. It is an excellent examination of strategic policy and consequences.

I can remember doing a major project in school on the Vietnam conflict, which I still had until water damaged a box of items from my school days, where I drew a map, identified locations, and discussed the major battles that had taken place. Among them was the recently fought Tet Offensive in 1968. Even though I was interested greatly in the historical context of these battles, I came to realize many years later what the true cost in human capital–far beyond the “body count” figures the Department of Defense used to quantify progress against the enemy that was reported daily–a cost that was not only highlighted in the disrespect given to returning troops, but also in the extreme challenges faced by Vietnam Veterans long after the end of their service.

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The above art exhibit is entitled “Above and Beyond” by artists Ned Broderick, Rick Steinbock, Joe Fornelli, and Mike Helbing. Originally featured in the National Veterans Art museum in Chicago, it was relocated to the Harold Washington Library in 2016, where it will remain on exhibit until 2020. The artwork includes over 58,000 replica dog tags–each bearing the name of and American serviceman or servicewoman killed in the Vietnam War. It is a stark reminder of the toll of war…

 

The Vietnam War draft ended a few weeks before my 18th birthday. I imagine that my parents quietly breathed a sigh of relief, although I had letters of admissions to a college and a university before I was 18 and had scholarships commensurate with my academic standing. Then again, seven years later I still ended up in the military, serving as a naval officer for nearly three decades until my retirement in 2011…and I would do it all over again if given the opportunity.

It has been good during more recent times to see Vietnam Veterans receiving the recognition and respect they so richly deserve. There is no doubt that modern warfare is much more like the Vietnam War than those wars preceding it. We have an uncertain enemy–it could be the man, woman, or child next to you, across the street, in your office, in your school, cooking your food, teaching your children, or any number of other possibilities that we will never know until sifting through the aftermath. It is guerilla warfare like our Vietnam veterans had to face, but now it is guerilla warfare in plain sight. There is no doubt that war is as hard today as it was 50 years ago…but it was exponentially more difficult to serve during a time when the military was despised by the public than serving in today’s environment of respect for the military.

three-servicemen-vietnam-vets-memorial
Photo credit: Ken Lund

 

Thank you, Vietnam Veterans. You have my respect and gratitude for standing the watch, facing the enemy, and sacrificing more than we will ever know.

May your sacrifices–and those of your brothers and sisters who never made it home–never be forgotten. May those who are still missing be found. May we carry on a legacy of facing adversity–whether it is popular, supported, or not. DUTY, HONOR, SACRIFICE.

 

Non sibi sed patriae…

 

vietnam_war_memorial_at_night
Credit: National Park Service

 


Today’s post is an opinion piece. I invite you to comment respectfully and share your thoughts and experiences on the subject!

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