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.'

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

In recent years, there have recurring stories of men who embellish (or flat out lie about) their military experience. The list is uncomfortably long. Actor Brian Dennehy, Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson, former U.S. Rep. Wes Cooley, Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis.

Vietnam vet B.G. Burkett, author of “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History,” claims to have revealed more than 2,000 men who falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam.

In his proclamation for the commemoration, the President hinted at the domestic strife that marked the war, referring to its veterans as those “who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”

“It is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor,” he said, evoking the call to “separate the warrior from the war,” however long after the fact that would come.

And at “the wall,” he took further note of how many returning vets were treated.

“Often you were blamed for a war you didn’t start,” he said.  "You came home and were sometimes denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened."

In many parts of the country today, older Vietnam vets are mentoring young veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping them get through tough economic times and tougher memories of combat.

“It’s here we feel the depth of your sacrifice,” Obama said to the assembled Vietnam vets and their families on Memorial Day. “You did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud, and you have earned your place among the greatest generations.”

Then, at their memorial site – Washington’s most-visited place of national historical significance – Obama said the words Vietnam vets typically say to each other: “Welcome home.”

Two stories of how Vietnam came home to the family

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