Vietnam veterans weren’t heroes when they came home. When you hear one say that his homecoming was disappointing, that he might have even gotten a hostile reception, he’s not exaggerating. That’s how it was. I know.
Like many people, I viewed the war in Southeast Asia as an illegal war. Simplistic if then thinking meant that Americans fighting there must be illegal warriors. Everything imaginable seemed wrong about the war. The lack of a formal declaration of war by the U.S. Congress, the ever-shifting lines of battle, involving first this country, then that, the blurriness of the enemy – were they soldiers, children, women, villages? The class-based draft that excused college students, the images of drug use, disorder, murky stories about fragging in which soldiers threw grenades into the tents of unpopular officers, the horror of My Lai. The endless secrets, the lies, intentional mysteries. Napalm.
A President who had calmed the country after John Kennedy’s assassination and managed to pass the most sweeping Civil Right law in history sacrificed his legacy to the war. I watched on TV as Lyndon Johnson told the country that he ‘would not seek nor would he accept’ his party’s nomination for a second term as President. The gore and madness of the war in Vietnam chased him out of office.
So when I was assigned by my boss at the anti-poverty agency where I worked in the late 70’s to write grants for the National Association of Black Veterans, I resisted. This was not why I wanted to be in community work. I wanted to help children and families, right the wrongs of social injustice, change lives, not raise money so veterans with bad discharges could appeal. “You hate the war and the warriors,” said the NABV director when he picked up on my bad attitude. He was right.
But I wasn’t the only one. Most of the country felt the same way.
There were real veterans, like my two uncles who served in World War II and my husband’s father who enlisted at age 17 and was at the Battle of the Bulge. There was the old man in my neighborhood growing up who had been captured by the Germans in World War I. There was Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Marshall and the amazing stories of valor about World War II.
And then there were Vietnam vets. Most of the time they just melted in to the population. Sometimes, they got pretty angry about the war and became protestors themselves. After a while, the war ended. Fifty thousand American soldiers dead. Thousands upon thousands of Southeast Asians. With no apparent outcome. So bitter.
But now when we go to our city’s Veterans Day parade, we applaud for every contingent that passes and we applaud extra loud for Vietnam vets. And I think to myself, when did this happen? When did they become heroes? We used to blame them for the war. Why aren’t we blaming them anymore? It’s not a conscious thing, like some new evidence came out that changed everyone’s minds about Vietnam vets. Nothing happened but the passage of time and a couple of other wars.
I can’t speak for everyone but for me, when I see the Vietnam vets march by, most of them my age, I feel like my generation is marching. I feel loyal to them. I also increasingly understand that going to a foreign place to fight in a war is by itself heroic, and made the more so by the uniquely terrible conditions of Vietnam. I know that buried in the nightly news reports of that time, were stories of courage and kindness. I know that most veterans who served in Vietnam didn’t choose to be there, but they were there and did their best, even when the country was doing so little to support them. I guess I am grateful that they were sticking up for me and every other American even though I didn’t like it at the time.
There is something so true about the adage that time heals all wounds. I hope time has healed the wound Vietnam vets must have felt coming home, healed the wound of lack of gratitude and recognition, healed the wound of hatred.
They deserve that. They’re heroes and I’m glad I finally figured that out.