Some weeks ago I was invited by the Veteran’s Day Committee here in Ripon to be a speaker at this second annual event. In particular, I was to speak about the Vietnam Veteran. I wasn’t sure I should attempt to speak for Vietnam Vets. But since this was my designated task, I began the process of wrestling with the way I should approach this topic.
After I delivered this talk on Veteran’s Day last week, I had several people suggest that I submit this as my next Roots in Ripon article. So, the remainder of this article is what I shared that day.
What is a Vietnam Veteran?
Throughout our nation’s history, every generation of men has faced the challenge of answering the call-to-arms when the nation has faced the possibilities of war. In more recent days, our women are filling the ranks of the combat fighter, establishing a new chapter in our nation’s storied legacy of ordinary folks stepping up to perform extraordinary service.
The Vietnam Veteran has often been castigated for having been pampered as kids – spoiled, if you will. Products of the post-World War II excesses which ranged from affordable housing to Hula Hoops; from Electric Refrigerators to TV Dinners; from 9” Television Sets to Candy Cigarettes. And the dream of our parents was that we, their children, would be able to get a college education. That education, we were told by all of the adults in our lives, was the door to our future. We were expected to pursue this educational track so we could better ourselves and strengthen our country through economics and commerce.
In the midst of this aggressive pursuit of higher education, a war in Indo-China pops up. Where in the world is this place? Oh yeah, it’s called Vietnam now. What was this all about? Well, being the sons of World War II veterans, later to be called the “Greatest Generation,” we wanted to prove we were up to the task in protecting our home and loved ones, just as those before us had done. Never mind that President Eisenhower had strongly cautioned America against getting involved in a land war in Asia. Never mind that President Kennedy was trying to avoid committing combat troops to Vietnam. Then President Johnson made the decision to have our military push the communist forces in Vietnam back out of the south. The cat was out of the bag now.
But many of you will remember how the country rallied around our forces going into Vietnam. Even the media was supportive! Young men were signing up to serve. Yes there was the draft, but so many were willing to raise their right hand and take the oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, that the draft hardly seemed necessary. Along the way something happened in America. The colleges and universities, where we were to have received these priceless educational opportunities, became hotbeds for pointing out what was supposedly wrong with America. Throw into this the cauldron of racial unrest brewing in our inner-cities, and it was a recipe for national disruption. Then there was the counter-culture movement with its emphasis on free love, seemed to cause us to question everything we were as Americans. Now add to this the reminder on the evening news of the number of American servicemen killed in Vietnam that day, and you have a growing discontent with a war in a land that most Americans could not locate on a map.
In the midst of this growing discontent for all things American, the returning veteran was singled out as a stooge, a foil, for a government that was now looked upon as being engaged in a war for the profit of large American corporations, and not to eradicate communism from the world stage. That was all so much political mumbo-jumbo, and we, who were asked to carry the fight to a distant enemy, did so because we wanted to be faithful to our nation. It is also a bit of historical irony that in ten years of warfare in Vietnam, the Vietnam Veterans did not lose one battle.
The Vietnam Vet seemed to be the embodiment of all the ills of the nation. Many of these vets preferred to take their chances in Vietnam rather than return to a nation that despised them and spit on them, calling them women and baby killers. My personal take on all of this is that the malaise of the 1960s and 70s will not pass until my generation has left this world.
So, does the Vietnam Vet expect anything as far as an apology, or even a “thank you” for having served? No. We know that when it was our time to serve, the conditions were such that our sacrifices were not so readily appreciated. However, I believe today many Americans are grateful for the effort of their Vietnam Vets. And that’s enough for us.
The Vietnam Vet served with pride and dignity. He returned home to put his war-fighting days behind him, and perhaps to go back to those same colleges and universities where we were previously pilloried, and pursue that elusive education. We found jobs, got married, raised our children, and helped make our communities better places to live – communities just like Ripon.
But with all the troubles that surrounded us in those dark days, may I say to you who are our neighbors and friends, Thank you! We, the Vietnam Vets, love our country just as you do. Thank you for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us in making this a greater country. We, the Vietnam Veterans, are proud to have served. And we would do it again in a heartbeat!
I would like to ask all the Vietnam Veterans to stand. These are your veterans, Ripon!