As Veterans Day approaches this weekend, there will be a well-deserved outpouring of support for all those who have served the United States in uniform. After almost two decades of war, public support for veterans and those serving in today’s all-volunteer force remains extremely high. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case. All veterans deserve our recognition and gratitude, but this year as we approach Nov. 11 I find my thoughts returning again and again to those who fought in what was arguably the most consequential, divisive and controversial event in American history: the Vietnam War.
Vietnam was the backdrop of my childhood. It was my brother’s war, not my father’s. It was contentious and messy and misunderstood, and it was a war fought not just in South East Asia but on the streets of America as well. I grew up in a small Midwestern college town where the heartache and divisions brought on by this conflict were on display almost daily. Too many of those who left to serve came home in body bags, their names added to the lengthening list in the local newspaper, their lives snuffed out before they’d even had a chance to experience them. Student protesters took to the campus streets night and day, burning draft cards and sometimes the American flag, anger and confusion etched on their so-young faces and on the faces of the police officers sent in to disperse them. Over the course of 11 years, 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam; 58,148 were killed and 304,000 wounded. The Vietnam War was America’s first reality TV show, witnessed on our flickering screens night after night, the horrifying images indelibly marking an entire generation.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And about the way the majority of Vietnam vets were treated when they were lucky enough to make it home. There were very few welcome homes, few hugs or handshakes, few safe harbors offered. Certainly little understanding that the kids fighting our wars should never be confused with the adults making the war policies. These vets weren’t honored for their service but reviled as the face of the most unpopular war in American history. They were often shamed and threatened in unthinkable ways, disrespected with obscenities and literally spat upon, hurt and humiliated in ways that even war hadn’t prepared them for.
And this wasn’t just a short-term situation. For decades following the end of the war, Vietnam vets in America were largely disdained, ignored, and too often vilified by American society. Movies and books commonly depicted them as either deranged psychotics, bitter and broken people, or bloodthirsty renegades. Commemorations of Veterans Day in those days past were far more muted than today, as American society remained deeply divided not only about the Vietnam War but also about how to treat the soldiers that fought it. Over time, most Vietnam vets quietly melded successfully back into society and continued with their lives, building businesses and starting families, but the hollow feeling for many of them I’ve been told always remains.
Perhaps there can never be a full healing for these vets. Their experiences are so specific to their particular service and homecoming, and I imagine no number of belated thanks for their service or handshakes of gratitude, however appreciated they might be, can make up for what’s come before. Still, I’m resolving this year to reach out and make a concerted effort to step up support for these particular vets in whatever small way I can. They’re the largest aging group of veterans in America, and I believe they should be recognized while they’re still here. I hope you’ll consider this too. Here are some of the ways we might help:
The 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War is being acknowledged nationwide from May 28, 2012, through November 11, 2025, as part of The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. Check with your local VA facility or veteran’s service organization to see when they’re hosting their Vietnam 50th commemoration event and how you might assist.
The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act was signed into law last year, designating March 29 of each year as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Find out how you can support this special day nationally and/or locally.
Honor Flight Network recognizes American veterans for their sacrifices and achievements by flying them to Washington, D.C. to see their memorial at no cost. If you know a vet, particularly a Vietnam vet, this might apply to, have them complete an application. At the very least, you can make a donation to help the program continue.
Honoring the men and women who served in Vietnam, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., chronologically lists the names of more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service to their country. Plan a visit or find out how to support the memorial.
Last, but certainly not least, make it a point to learn more about The North Wall, also known as the Canadian Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a war memorial in Windsor, Ontario, erected in honor of the Canadians killed in action during the Vietnam War. That’s right, while Canada was officially non-belligerent during the Vietnam War and was a refuge for roughly 30,000 American draft resisters, more than 30,000 Canadian citizens enlisted with the U.S. Armed Forces to serve in Vietnam, with at least 12,000 of them seeing combat. The Canadian memorial lists the names of the 138 soldiers who died during the conflict.