This Memorial Day, many Vietnam vets, long silent, are finding a voice

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam war, and President Obama will pay tribute Monday. It's a sign that, at last, Vietnam vets are being and feeling embraced. 

Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Visitors leave flags, flowers, and other mementos underneath the names of loved ones at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

A former helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Mark Nestor had for a decade spearheaded a ceremony during a Memorial Day parade in Gloucester, Mass., for his fellow veterans of the infamous war.

This year, however, the city decided to skip the stop along its parade route at the modest Vietnam memorial nestled in a corner of the campus of a local high school that saw 11 of its graduates die in the war. “The argument is based on ‘We are one country that has fought many wars,’ ” Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk told the hometown newspaper. “With veterans returned and returning from Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., the concern was that every war would end up with its own Memorial Day service.”

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam war this year, the choice of this particular Memorial Day to cut the Vietnam war memorial from the parade route hit particularly hard, says Mr. Nestor. 

But what happened next was a poignant and surprising show of community support, he adds: The city’s office, Facebook, and Twitter pages were inundated with calls to keep the Vietnam memorial stop along route. “The outpouring was absolutely astonishing.”

In Washington on Monday, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will take part in a ceremony at the wall to remember the start of the unpopular war, and to pay tribute to the more than 58,000 Americans who died fighting it. 

Indeed, as the half-century commemoration of the war approaches, advocates say that Vietnam veterans across the country are increasingly – though still gradually and cautiously – stepping out to accept tributes of gratitude for their service.

“They were so damaged and they were so upset--for years, they didn’t want to remember a very bad experience that we as a country made worse,” Nestor says. “We’re still trying to bring them back out of obscurity, and in an imperfect way, to say belatedly that we appreciate what you do.”

In the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill., where he is organizing a parade for Vietnam veterans, Greg Padovani says that despite outreach, some remain reluctant to come forward. “They say, ‘Listen, I really appreciate what you’re doing, but I don’t need to march. I prefer not to march,’ ” he says. “Some of their experiences were so tough, so horrible that they can’t bring themselves to march, because it brings back memories.”

Others find the experience cathartic. What’s more, the growing willingness of some Vietnam vets to step forward comes in part from the warm welcome they have seen Iraq and Afghan war veterans receive, says Mr. Padovani, a veteran of the Vietnam war.

“They’re seeing that the country may be upset at the war, but they’re not taking it out on the veterans themselves, but on the politicians,” he adds. “That’s a big difference from the Vietnam era. It’s made a lot of the Vietnam guys realize that the country is very supportive of its vets – and that things have changed in that respect.” 

In many instances, Vietnam veterans – protective of their fellow Iraq and Afghan war vets – have helped to drive that change. 

A pivotal force behind the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington 30 years ago, Jan Scruggs says that it is often the Vietnam vets who are arranging airport welcomes and other events for vets returning home from America’s current wars. “We just don’t want anything to happen to them that happened to us,” he says.

The Memorial Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial “is really a magnificent, incredible event for us,” Mr. Scruggs adds, citing the participation of the President of the United States in the ceremony. “[President Obama] knows that we do a lot for these guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.” 

In past years, “We always invited President Bush, but he couldn’t come because it was just a big public relations land-mine for him,” Scruggs adds. “Now you’ve got somebody who is almost saluting his elders. President Obama’s a generation removed from Vietnam, and he really wants to salute the Vietnam vets.”

In Arlington Heights, the ceremony will include a choir comprised of Vietnam vets and local school children, as well as veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Korean War, and World War II. “Iraq and Afghan war vets are wonderful kids – wonderful people – and we have nothing but admiration for them,” Padovani says.

Back in Gloucester, the annual Memorial Day parade stop at the unassuming Vietnam veterans memorial will continue, and Nestor expects many Iraq and Afghan war vets to stop by. “Fighting in Afghanistan is probably just as bad as fighting in the jungles of Vietnam,” he says. In any case, he adds, “You don’t do it because you want to do it. You do it because you’re asked to do it by your country – and that should be recognized.” 

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