Despite the deployment of National Guardsmen and military reservists to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are a lot of people who don’t know anyone in the military. Over the years I’ve discovered that the average civilian doesn’t know much about the military. They have no real understanding of the differences between the branches of services.
Most know that the Navy is the one that has the boats. That the Air Force has the planes. And the Army and the Marine Corps has something to do with shooting and blowin’ up stuff on the ground.
On this Veteran’s Day we take a day to express our appreciation for those men and women who have served, and are serving, our country in one of the branches of our Armed Forces. It’s a simple day for a simple “thank you.”
The veterans of Vietnam didn’t start getting any thanks until years after the war was over. Most Vietnam vets have yet to be thanked. It was a different time and a different culture when they returned from their war. The anti-war sentiments in this country had spread from marches on Washington and peaceful demonstrations on Main Street America, to violent and belligerent assaults on returning veterans themselves.
There were no happy celebrations greeting our brave men when they returned from the horrors of that war. There were no parades. There were no cheers of excitement and admiration. There were no public or even private expressions of gratitude. No words of thanks. No pats on the back. Returning Vietnam vets returned to jeers and hate, their service ridiculed and maligned. They were made to feel shame and guilt for answering their country’s call to serve.
In 1970, my 21 year old brother, a decorated Marine, returned from honorable and heroic service in Vietnam. He was met at the San Francisco airport by a huge crowd of loud and angry protesters. This mob included a young mother, a little older than my brother, who stepped in front of him blocking his way, thrust her young child into my brother’s face, and screamed “YOU FILTHY BABY KILLER!! THIS IS WHAT YOU KILLED IN VIETNAM!” She then spat in his face and on his dress uniform.
Over 20 years later my brother confessed to me that the pain and rejection that he felt at that very moment, the moment that woman screamed at him and accused him of unthinkable acts, had never left him. He felt it over 20 years later.
When the first Gulf War ended, our country turned out in masses and welcomed our heroes home. We had committed a horrible sin against those who served in Vietnam and we were determined not to have another generation of honorable veterans made to feel like war criminals. So we really threw a party! In fact, we probably went a little overboard. As if the make up for our tragic mistake with the Vietnam era vets.
Unfortunately, we were making up to the wrong generation.
Hundreds of Vietnam vets watched those celebrations and parades … heard the speeches … and felt even more rejected.
The first Gulf War was measured in days and had less than 200 casualties. Vietnam was measured in multiplied years and claimed almost 70,000 American lives. It was like honoring someone for jogging around the block, while ignoring someone who’d survived a death march of a thousand miles.
Vietnam vets felt even more marginalized. Shoved into the corner of American history reserved for our mistakes. We’d ignored them again.
My brother took his life within weeks of the end of the first Gulf War. He is buried in the National Cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was only in death that his country, our country, reserved for him a place of honor.
On this Veteran’s Day, and any day you have the opportunity, be sure and single out the aging Vietnam Veteran. They don’t look like the young men they were when our country sent them to a foreign land to serve … and to do what most would like to forget. But inside that 59 or 60 year old veteran is a young man longing to be told, “thank you for your service.”