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Vietnam War: Beginning 13 years of commemorating a divisive conflict

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Monday, President Obama began a national commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the Vietnam War. To Vietnam veterans he said, 'You made us proud, and you have earned your place among the greatest generations.'

By Staff writer / May 28, 2012

President Barack Obama stands with his wife Michelle Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shiseki during an observance of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall Monday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Monday, President Obama began a national commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the Vietnam War – the most divisive war in US history since the Civil War.

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It’ll last 13 years – the length of time the United States spent building up its major combat presence there to more than half a million troops under three presidents, losing 58,282 American service personnel, battling politically over a war that most Americans eventually rejected, and then disengaging in defeat – hurriedly leaving in 1975 as North Vietnamese forces swept into what was then Saigon, US helicopters lifting off building tops carrying what few South Vietnamese families they could.

Aside from family and friends (and not all of those), it was years before most Vietnam vets heard a “welcome home” – officially not until the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. And even that was controversial – critics called the stark, black granite wall inscribed with the names of those lost “a black gash of shame.”

Two stories of how Vietnam came home to the family

As some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did last week, some Vietnam veterans – largely a young and scruffy lot still wearing their jungle fatigues, some bearing the wounds of combat – had tossed their medals over a fence on Capitol Hill in protest. One of the antiwar leaders at the time was a young US Navy lieutenant named John Kerrey, now a veteran US senator.

Members of the Vietnam generation faced “their war” in different ways.

More than 3 million served in Southeast Asia, most of them not draftees but volunteers. Some left the country for Canada and other countries to avoid the draft. Others found legal ways to avoid service. Some (like former vice president Dick Cheney, who said he had “other priorities” at the time) accumulated multiple deferments. More than 300 professional athletes got Reserve or Guard appointments, including Bill Bradley, Nolan Ryan, and seven members of the Dallas Cowboys. So did former president George W. Bush.

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