About 600,000 Vietnam veterans are alive today from the total number who actually served there, which is between 2.7 to 3.1 million. The ranks dwindle by approximately 400 each day. Included in that number are a portion of the 20 or more veteran suicides each day although some say the numbers are an under-count . Unfortunately, the exact number of Vietnam veteran suicides included in the 20 is not clear. What is certain is that fewer and fewer will be present to speak out with ever weakening voices about this travesty of a war and the decades of neglect of those who survive.
Yet again, Veterans Day rolls around. It is that confusing holiday in November that celebrates exactly…. what? The original intent of this day of remembrance was for the Armistice that ended WWI on the 11th of November 1918, as opposed to Memorial Day which is set aside to remember U.S. veterans who died in combat. Veterans Day in the U.S. is set aside to remember and thank all veterans, and therefore, is very much for the two Cultural Support Team (CST) soldiers pictured above in Afghanistan, where we tarried for two decades. This photo was unthinkable when I served in the 60s and 70s. Women in the Army was a notion represented by the typist in the pool at the finance office or by an Army nurse. The women in the picture accompanied infantry patrols in a culturally based effort to deal with Afghan women. Don't be fooled by that mission. Those rifles were used when necessary. That was combat.
I have a family history of service during a war: My father and uncle got WWII. My cousin got Korea. And I got Vietnam. No family member has donned the uniform since. Over the last 6 months or so, to take the “temperature” of veterans, I have been participating in several Vietnam veterans and related Facebook groups, such as:
There were several other sites from which I removed myself because of poor moderation and bickering. It seems no matter where you go, someone sneezes on the salad bar. But I did have some takeaways from reading posts and reacting to them that I'd like to share on this Veterans Day. The focus was, of course, Vietnam.
My estimate is that most of the Vietnam vets who signed up on these sites were enlisted, that is privates, corporals, sergeants, etc. as opposed to commissioned officers (lieutenants, captains, colonels, etc.). Not surprisingly, the enlisted bore the brunt of the fighting. An overwhelming number of those who posted or responded with comments, just wanted to be recognized as having endured terrible events while far from home. Some have returned to Vietnam, as I did, to visit the places they were stationed during the fighting. Others wanted nothing to do with going back. Little rancor was expressed toward the “enemy” in Vietnam. However, much rancor was evident against their own government, the one that abandoned them.
Those who served in-country (actually on the ground) displayed little animosity toward those who served elsewhere during the war, such as in the U.S., Europe, or other non-combat zones. These vets fall under the rubric “Vietnam Era” service members. Decades ago I thought the rubric "Vietnam Era" was created by some congressmen who were embarrassed that, although they served in the military, they made sure they did not go to Vietnam. Blowing of smoke as it were to fool those who did not know the distinction Vietnam Veteran/Vietnam Era Veteran. [My attempts to pin down the exact meaning and use of these terms were not wholly successful as they are used and abused by a variety of individuals and organizations both in and out of the government. ] The notion was that someone had to mind the store elsewhere in the world and soldiers went where they were told. As a result, many veterans who did not go to Vietnam were welcomed into the various Vietnam Veteran-oriented groups.
Eventually in a comment, someone would bring up the definition of “combat veteran”. We often hear people referred to as a combat veteran and we think we know what that means but do we really? The term is not an official one except that service in a combat zone (officially a hostile fire zone) determines certain benefits during and after military service. That is what the Veterans Administration goes by. Most soldiers would say informally that a combat veteran was someone who actually engaged in combat with the enemy, i.e., an infantryman, a tanker, an artillery gunner, a fighter pilot, or someone who actually got shot at and returned fire. Lots of Vietnam veterans, including myself, got shot at (me once) or were too close for comfort when mortar rounds landed. I was in a combat support role but does that qualify for combat veteran status, as unofficial as it is? Like Vietnam Era Veteran, the concept becomes very squishy very early on upon examination.
Regardless of where they served, the supreme no-no is what is called Stolen Valor, referring to anyone purporting to be more, or have done more, than he/she was or did by exaggerating their service accomplishments. Wearing of certain combat related medals that are not specifically earned by an individual is also considered Stolen Valor and some instances is punishable by US Code. Not correcting false impressions that others have about one's service is also frowned upon. Bullshit detectors among these old soldiers operate with unfailing accuracy.
To be sure there were “patriotic” postings, many of which consisted of paintings of angry-looking bald eagles with the Stars and Stripes as background. Barracks humor and some bravado filled roles in dealing with feelings of being forgotten. (See pic at left) Any veteran who posted a question about problems with health care or disability received instant assistance from dozens of their fellow vets. The concern was palpable and immediate. During their service they learned to rely on one another. This carries over into life after the military.
Pictures abound on these sites. Some posted in an effort to find old friends who were in the same units. Most photos are of very slim, shirtless men in front of tents and Quonset huts, or a wall of sand bags, or a tank/armored personnel carrier/artillery piece. Photos of nurses also abound. These women are held in awe by the soldiers and woe be it to he who utters anything against a nurse. [One is reminded of General William Tecumseh Sherman's remark of respect and exasperation regarding the bull-headed nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke , during the Civil War. “She ranks me.”] Other photos were of the veteran today: mostly old men with white beards and a paunch. Some on motorcycles. Some with other veterans celebrating the fact they are still alive. Others skeletal, hooked to IVs and in hospital beds recovering from their latest surgery or …essentially waiting to die.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
reviving old dreams of past glories;
and the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore,
they’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask meself the same question.
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
and the old men still answer the call.
But as year follows year,
more old men disappear.
Someday no one will march there at all.