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June 26, 2012

On Recognizing Our Vietnam Vets

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BRAVO! supporter extraordinaire, Chuck Dennis, muses on the recognition of Vietnam vets, past and present.

Many Vietnam vets have spoken about not being “welcomed” home from the war. Even when, later, Vietnam veterans were honored and given special places in celebrations such as Memorial Day, recognition seemed easy and shallow to many.

Certainly, being ignored or called “baby killers” went way too far, even for most people who, like me, opposed the Vietnam War. The President said it well at The Wall on Memorial Day. “One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam, most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. . . . You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.”

Campaign rhetoric? Perhaps. But he and the last several Presidents (and Congress and many “bureaucrats”) took action as well. They built a stronger VA, with hospitals where you can actually get quality care. They funded and conducted research that led to a wide variety of improvements, from better prosthetics to treating Post Traumatic Stress among veterans. They placed high priority on jobs for veterans through educational and training opportunities for returning soldiers and through job preferences for vets, the only “affirmative action” allowed in this country today. Support for these actions has been one rare place where we are not Democrats or Republicans, but Americans.

Nevertheless, there is more to do. For those of us who haven’t seen war firsthand (I was a Vietnam-era vet but not in Vietnam), we should learn more about veterans’ needs, especially related to the physical and emotional traumas that war wreaks on the warrior. That means listening to our warrior friends, recognizing them for what they have done, and supporting and helping them where we can. We should recognize and honor the positives that come with the leadership, teamwork, and brotherhood that military experience provides. In addition, we need to hold our representatives’ feet to the fire to make sure that veterans’ issues are addressed in both the public and private sectors. In short, our support needs to be deeper than a parade and a picnic on Memorial Day.

For those of us who are veterans, the first “to do” is to continue the advocacy veterans have been good at for a long time. Raise the warrior’s issues and let people know about the warrior’s needs. (For Vietnam vets, for example, Agent Orange awareness has subsided and needs to be brought back to the forefront.) At the same time, recognize that there may be many ways to meet the warrior’s needs, and be willing to discuss how to do so with limited resources. Know what the “bottom line” needs are (as opposed to “nice-to-haves”), and negotiate from that baseline. Be willing to work with people across the spectrum to meet those “bottom line” needs.

Second, there is certainly room to disagree on the role of government, but it would be good for vets to recognize that government, at least sometimes, provides beneficial services for people in exchange for our taxes. Today, vets have some of the best health care in the world, sponsored and paid for by our Federal Government (something to think about in view of the fight over extending good health care to other Americans). The GI Bill and job preferences for vets are also courtesy of the Federal Government.. And I think we should hold government’s “feet” to the fire to make sure that what it does, it does well and without waste. Most important, if we are going to insist on quality government services, we need to be willing to pay the price. I don’t mean overpay, but starving government services we’re unwilling to end won’t get us good services or a better government.

Third, let’s distinguish between the war and the warrior. As BRAVO! so powerfully documents, common men were put through hell, and they pulled together and fought with uncommon valor. (Yes, Ken, I’m borrowing your title.) But in my view, the Vietnam War was as far from “self defense” as America has ever gone, the war in Iraq was based in part on falsehoods, and I, for one, have no appetite for US boots on the ground in Syria or Iran.

Finally, veterans need to be a little tolerant of non-veterans (or people like me who didn’t serve in combat) who don’t fully understand what warriors went through. Yes, much of our celebration of veterans feels shallow, but it is better than what Vietnam vets got in the 1970s. Further, I don’t think we want most Americans to have too deep an understanding of what war does to the warrior and his (or her) family. Really deep understanding would come from war carried to American shores, multiple “9-11s,” or, at the least, reinstitution of a draft where even rich and privileged kids actually have to serve.

One last point – while we aren’t where we want to be, things are better for Vietnam vets than they once were. Both government and society have learned from the Vietnam veteran’s experience. Government has learned the importance of the mental impact of war. We knew about “shell shock,” but not how common Post Traumatic Stress is among warriors. We also learned that actions such as spraying Agent Orange everywhere could lead to long-term harm to warriors. Finally, we learned a lot about treating the physical wounds of war. Vietnam vets have benefitted, but the real benefit has accrued to today’s warrior, who gets better treatment on all fronts than past warriors received.

Society, too, has learned from how it treated Vietnam vets. When troops coming home were branded “baby killers,” they then went home to family and friends who realized that, no, they were just young men and women who tried to do their best and serve their country in extremely trying circumstances. So, over time, society rejected the “baby killer” label and began welcoming the vets home, first as individuals, and later as a nation. Today, at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, every time a group of today’s warriors walks through the terminal in camo, everyone stands up and cheers.

A far cry from what Vietnam vets faced forty-plus years ago, but finally, today, we do welcome the Vietnam veteran into society. In fact, the President made a point, at the end of his Memorial Day speech at The Wall, of welcoming Vietnam vets home. What he said reflects the views of the nation: Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home.