Friday, March 29, marks National Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day. Signed into law by President Trump, the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017 sets aside a day to recognize veterans who served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and encourages the flying of the flag.
March 29, 1973, saw the last U.S. combat troops leave South Vietnam, bringing a conclusion to a controversial and unpopular war that defined a generation. Against the backdrop of cultural and societal change, a total of 8,744,000 U.S. troops, according to the Department of Defense, served worldwide. Hundreds from Prince William County served, including at least 10 local soldiers who died. They were among more than 58,000 in-theater U.S. deaths during the war. Many remain unaccounted for.
A number of events will be held locally this weekend to show appreciation for Vietnam veterans, a marked and welcome change from the years immediately following the end of the war.
As the tide turned against Vietnam, many of those opposed to the war at best shunned, and at worst vilified, returning veterans. The anti-establishment movement saw those serving in Vietnam as the embodiment of all they were fighting against. Many factors accounted for this.
Approximately 1 million civilians died. The bombing of North Vietnam surpassed the bombing of the Axis powers in World War II in total tonnage. The war was estimated to cost about $200 billion. Finally, shock over the violence of 1968’s Tet Offensive, after years of stagnation in the fight to stem communism, began to erode American support for the war. The cover-up over the My Lai massacre further fueled anti-war sentiment.
Whether due to war opposition or shame in how it ended — a peace without victory — there were no parades welcoming home those who served. Moreover, the nation was ill-prepared to take care of veterans. Benefits were paltry to non-existent. And as more wartime atrocities came to light, Vietnam veterans as a whole were forced to shoulder the nation’s guilt and shame.
Keeping in mind nearly two-thirds of American troops were volunteers — the draft was still in full force — that is a shameful weight to bear on top of the sacrifices they already endured. Many will carry the losses of their friends, their visible injuries and invisible scars with them for the rest of their lives.
Healing truly did not begin to take hold until the dedication of the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial — “The Wall” — nearly a decade later in Washington, D.C.
The lessons of U.S. failures in the wake of Vietnam would be clearly visible in the nation’s conduct — both in how it fights, and how it cares for the warfighter — nearly 20 years later in the Gulf War. They continue to be applied today, even as the Vietnam War’s mantle of America’s longest “hot” war has been surpassed by the War in Afghanistan. The nation’s infrastructure still struggles to properly care for its warfighters, but as a people we have become far more supportive of their sacrifice.
We strongly encourage celebrating our Vietnam veterans on National Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day. Our belated “thanks,” particularly for this oft-ignored generation, is always important. The onus is on all of us to back up our appreciative words with actions. Each and every day.