Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana
Vietnam. The country, the war, the service members who fought in it. The word conjures up images, ones that are rarely pleasant, and ones whose impact is long lasting. And the recognition of those who fought, and died, in this conflict should never be forgotten and should always be honored.
March 29th, the day this is published, is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. It was designated as Vietnam Veterans Day in 2012 by President Barak Obama, and formalized as an official holiday in 2017 by President Donald Trump by the signing of the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017. The significance of this date is that the last combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, ending our nation’s direct military involvement in the war.
Vietnam, the war, was politically divisive and had a multi-generational impact. The war not only made it’s mark on the nation, but on the individuals who served in the conflict, their families, and their communities, and the impact continues to be felt to this day.
While significant in many ways, for me, the impact of this war is personal. The echoes have influenced my life for as long as I can remember. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my father and three of my uncles served in Vietnam, with each of them having a different reaction in their post-military life. That war, my father’s reaction to it, and the nation’s reaction to those who fought in it had as much an impact on my life as my own combat deployments. In the most recent years, my father’s service had come to be more respected and accepted. The importance of the designation of National Vietnam War Veterans Day last year, while appreciated, was not significant, to me, or even to my father; he had finally come to a measure of peace about it.
Then, in June, we lost him to a combination of natural causes and elemental exposure. And the opportunity to tell him how much I appreciated his sacrifice and honored his service was lost forever.
Make no mistake, the generation of men and women who served in Vietnam is slowly starting to fade away. There is not a Vietnam Veteran alive today who is younger than 65. As I visit my father’s headstone in Fort Logan National Cemetery, I look around at the memorial markers of his fellow service members, and he is surrounded by Vietnam Veterans. There are a few Korean War veterans here and there, and one Gulf War veteran, but he is flanked on both sides by those he fought with. The impact of the passing of this generation is not being noticed, and should not be underestimated.
My father never talked much about Vietnam. That was how he reacted to it; we knew it was there, we saw the impact that it had on his life, but we didn’t know much about it. I did’t fully understand it, as my parents divorced shortly after I was born, and I only saw the impact in bits and pieces. I recall when attitudes towards Vietnam Veterans started to shift, though. In the mid-80s, I attended a Welcome Home event with my father and my uncle. The Traveling Wall made a stop outside of St. Louis, and I visited the Wall with them. Later that day, there was a huge barbecue and welcome home party; my father later mentioned that it was the first time he felt truly recognized and thanked for his service.
Later, when I was stationed at Fort Bragg, I offered to get him a rubbing of a friend’s name from the wall; he appreciated it, but declined, and instead suggested that I get the name of a friend of my uncle’s and give it to him. That was my recollection of his reaction to Vietnam: pointing towards others, minimizing his own service. Pretending that it did not have the impact on his life, and our lives, that it did.
It was only before my first combat deployment to Iraq that we had a serious conversation about the impact of war. The piece of advice he gave me at that time: “When you get back, talk to your wife about it. Don’t shut her out and try to keep it to yourself. That was one of the places where I went wrong with your mother.” I know that it wasn’t the only thing that went wrong, but it was a big part of it. Then, as he moved from Missouri to Colorado, we started to talk about it more, in bits and pieces, and he started to come to terms with how it impacted his life.
During my retirement ceremony in May of 2014, the Colonel presiding the ceremony was reading the accomplishments and achievements of those of us who were retiring. As he was talking about my service, he mentioned that my father, a Vietnam Veteran, was in attendance. He stopped his prepared remarks, looked at my father in the audience, and said, “I want to personally thank you for your service as well, Sir. The soldiers of your generation paid a heavy price so that the soldiers of our generation can succeed.” After the ceremony, a line of Colonels and Sergeants Major lined up to shake his hand and thank him for his service.
That recognition, while appreciated and honored by both me and my father, was forty-five years overdue.
The impact of the Vietnam war is still being felt today. The support that veterans of my generation are receiving from the Department of Veterans Affairs, as challenging as it can be sometimes, is a direct result of the veterans of my father’s generation who refuse to allow what happened to them happen to us.
We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. We are thankful for it, and should never forget.