Monday, May 28, 2012

MEMORIAL DAY - VIETNAM

Every year when either Memorial Day or Veteran's Day roll around my first thought goes to the men and women who served in the Vietnam War.  I know that usually the first thought is to the Americans who fought and served in World War Two and my mind also goes to them, as well as all the wars from the the Revolutionary War to the current war in Afghanistan.

Vietnam stands from the other wars in a painful and shameful way.  It was not a popular war as both the World Wars were and even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not particularly popular, The vets serving and dying in those wars have a measure of support that rivals the support given to our armed forces in the popular wars.

The Vietnam veterans did not have that level of support.  Even though the majority of those who served in Vietnam were drafted  by the government and had no choice but to serve or leave the country or go the prison, they faced an unimaginable hostile public throughout the term of the war.

It was one of the most deadly wars in the history of the United States.  Two and a half million men and women served in Vietnam over the course of the war with nearly sixty thousand giving their lives.  The public did not show appreciation for the sacrifices made by these men and women on behalf of freedom for an oppressed people so that they would have a chance to live with the same freedoms we enjoy here in the United States.

That wasn't the only reason we fought that war.  We also wanted to have a presence in southeast Asia to counter act the presence of China military machine that was backing the Vietcong.  Compared to the wars of recent history where we are not only fighting for the freedom of peoples in foreign countries but also fighting a war to keep terrorism from our shores.  In Vietnam, it did not seem to the public that we were fighting to protect ourselves, but basically fighting another man's fight, so to speak.

Still, even with all of that, these men and women were putting their lives on the line every day in the name of the United States.  They were dying just as the men and women in Europe and the Pacific were during World War Two and Iraq and Afghanistan.  If anything, those in Vietnam faced a much more dangerous situation being that the war was fought in a jungle area with gorilla tactics.  Just as the men and women serving today are facing a foe that keeps on coming and expect to die, so did the Veterans of Vietnam.  The Vietcong had a seemingly non ending supply of soldiers that would go into neighboring countries and attack us and then go back through Laos and Cambodia where we were not allowed to go because they were considered neutral countries.

I am tempted to get into the whole Nixon going into Laos and Cambodia and getting in trouble for chasing our enemies in an attempt to end the war, I won't.  I want to keep this focused on the men and women on the ground and in the air.

The forces in Vietnam saw some horrific things.  They had suicide bombers in Vietnam too.  The problem with Vietnam was that you never knew of you were facing friend or foe as you came across these little villages.  Want to talk about PTSD?  There must have been hundreds if not thousands of un diagnosed PTSD.  It wasn't nearly recognized as much as it is today and a lot of the Vietnam vets were not provided benefits for it.

The Vietnam vets were expected to deal with that on there own and the result were many men having flashbacks that resulted in dangerous situations after they came home.  There were not a large number of volunteers to help the Veterans coming back from Vietnam as there is today.

Coming home from Vietnam was usually not  pleasant experience.  Today if a citizen sees a member of the service in an airport or out and about they are usually smiled at and sometimes even thanked for serving our country, and that is a good thing.  It was a different story for the Vietnam service member though.  They often were ignored, and that was a good outcome for them.  They faced curses, charges of "baby killer", spat upon and just yelled at and harassed.  It was not pleasant.

I think that one of the main reasons the public reacted in this manor to the Vietnam Veterans as opposed top any of the other  Veterans coming home from other wars is that this was the first war that the American people actually saw.  There were television reports every night with film footage from the war front and a nightly tally of wounded and killed.  Night after night for ten years the American people watched this.  It was the first time that most Americans had been exposed to the true horrors of war.

In the past we were always the good guys, and the stories coming from the war were words that could not convey the true ugliness of a war no matter what side you are on.  War is an ugly and brutal thing and you have to do what you can to survive and meet the goals that you are sent there to meet.  For the first time the general public saw good Americans doing what they had to do and this included setting huts and villages afire,  taking prisoners of which a lot were women who were used to fight.

The public saw the massive defoliation of jungle areas to make it safer for the American troops to enter into an area.  A lot of times theses defoliation missions caught innocent Vietnamese in the wake and they died.

All of this and much more added to the American public's attitude towards the men and women coming home from Vietnam.

Since those days in the late sixties and early to mid seventies, we have learned a lot.  The country has realized the mistakes it made by not giving the kind of support that the Vietnam veterans needed and deserved.  The general public has taken a new attitude as well.  I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped the public realize what war really is and the danger of not knowing what lies around the corner.

My brother in law served in Vietnam and he never talked about it, not to me anyway.  He didn't feel comfortable talking about it.  After his death, I was going through some pictures with my sister and we came across a lot of pictures that he had from Vietnam.  Except for the landscape, the pictures looked much like the pictures of our young men and women that we see from Iraq.  They were there to do a job, but when they had time, they tried to make life as normal as possible for themselves.

Mistakes were made in Vietnam.  I won't argue that.  I will argue that mistakes were made in previous wars that we do not know about and may never know about.  Today we try to fight a war with cameras on the troops twenty-four seven.  I personally don't think you can fight a war with cameras looking over your shoulder every second.  War is not pretty.  Things are done in the name of war that is not considered proper in the public arena.  But you know what I think?  You can't fight a war where you do everything with kid gloves on while your enemy will do anything no matter how horrendous to kill you.  Sometimes I think they should have a press pool back behind the lines and let the soldiers do what they are there to do.

These were not evil men that went to Vietnam and they should not be remembered as such.  I don't think they will be remembered that way.  I certainly hope they aren't remembered like that.  They were just as brave as any soldier in any other war.  They were just as determined as any other soldier in any war.

I want to take this time on Memorial Day to remember all of those men and women through the history of this country to defend us as well as others.  I think of pictures of Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I look at pictures of the cemetery at Normandy France and the thousands of lives of soldiers who went into D-Day knowing it would probably be their last day.  I remember the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor and hundreds of men who fought the first battle of United States forces in World War Two on a Sunday morning totally caught by surprise.

I think about a trip I took to Boston and seeing A spot in front of the Old State House where British Troops fired upon unarmed Americans in what would become known as the Boston Massacre and I remember seeing Bunker Hill where Americans fought one of the bloodiest battles in the Revolutionary War.  I think of trench warfare in World War One and the poison gasses that were used during that war.

This is Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember in our hearts to thank those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep this country free and to help others feel the same pride and freedom that we have.  It is also right to remember and to thank those who went to war and came home alive after seeing buddies and friends killed within feet of themselves, thank them for putting it all out there and putting their lives on the line.  Thank you, each and everyone of those who served in the history of this country.

I wanted to give a special thank you to those who served in Vietnam, without a lot of thanks, without a lot of appreciation.  To those who came home to be ridiculed and not treated the way someone who has spent a year with their life on the line.

A special thanks to the Vietnam Veterans and may this country never treat members of our military service the way they were treated again.  We are off to a good start, fighting two somewhat unpopular wars now and respecting the members who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  We can't make it up to the Vietnam Vets, but we can still thank them.  It is never too late for that.

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