While recently thumbing through my old Tennessee and Georgia high school yearbooks, tears pooled in my eyes. Yes, they were all there, young men with hope in their eyes and their youth on the edge of disappearing. I wonder what they would have accomplished in their lives if they had the promise of a future.
Would they laugh as I do at the silly antics of a grandchild? Would they still possess the impish grin the camera caught in the 60s? Maybe Howard would have made it onto the big screen with his good looks. Perhaps Bobby would be a renowned physician today, and Larry would have climbed up the ranks in his beloved army before retiring to Florida.
However, the maybe’s left when they all boarded a military bus to serve our nation while a war escalated in Vietnam. They, like so many, returned only to be laid to rest in their hometown cemeteries before they had a chance to see what could have been.
Bearing a scar
These young men joined the service as so many do to become soldiers of war. They are the elite among us who, I believe, God anoints with an extra dose or more of courage. These soldiers go blindly into battle to defend the land they love. They steadfastly look out for each other and often give their lives to save their comrades.
The Vietnam warriors were no different in character and honor as those who bravely fought for our Independence. They held the same gritty spirit as those who battled before them in the Revolutionary War or World War I and II, as well as all other conflicts. Thousands of soldiers have responded to the call to serve, but the warriors of Vietnam bear a scar.
By the time our troops were pulled from Vietnam in 1973, over 52,000 young soldiers had perished. Between 1964 and 1975, 2,709,918 men and women wore an American military uniform in Nam. 240 of them were awarded the Medal of Honor as Bobby Ray was for saving many lives, except his own. Of those killed in combat, 61% were younger than 21. Just out of school, just beginning to dream, just starting a future.
Also, in 1973, America’s electorate was deeply divided, and some say the military was demoralized. So, for those who returned from the rice paddies and trenches, ships, the skies, and prisons of Vietnam, there were no homecoming parades or bands of screaming, happy folks in Times Square to greet them. Instead, Vietnam was simply over for America.
Never blame the warrior
Today, those fallen Vietnam soldiers are immortalized on a wall in Washington, D.C. For those who lost friends or loved ones whose names are etched in this wall, the war is not forgotten, nor is the sacrifice. We are the older generation now, and our young faces are alongside those in the yearbooks who remain ageless.
Today, 610,000 courageous Vietnam Veterans are still walking among us. Of those who risked their lives in Southeast Asia, 97% were honorable discharged even though many were drafted for service.
Even after hearing countless stories of the heroism and bravery shown by our American troops during the second-longest war in our history, they returned home to be treated harshly by many for just doing what they were asked to do. Unfortunately, this response created a loss of self-esteem and grief for many young soldiers, leading to future deep-seated problems.
Our worst divisive behavior is the scar of Vietnam. The wound was not caused by the soldiers. The injury was inflicted by the free citizens who remained on American soil that turned their anger toward those sent to battle.
We can fairly charge those in government or politics for most anything but not the bravest, best, and the most elite among us. So we should never blame the warrior, nor the ones who suffer and give the most. Nor the over 150,000 who were wounded in Vietnam, or the prisoners of war, or those missing in action.
Take the time to notice the brave soldiers
I look into the eyes of my framed Vietnamese doll my brother sent me in 1965. She has my POW/MIA bracelet around her waist to remember another pilot whose remains were finally located a few years ago. My brother lived until 1998, but his time spent in Vietnam was always fresh in his heart. I, too, vow to honor those who gave so much to receive so little.
Memorial Days will come and go, but this year stop for a moment, look around, and notice the brave soldiers of long ago and celebrate them.
Maybe it will help heal the scar a divided nation caused and remind us never to produce such a wound again.
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.” General George S. Patton, Jr.