To me, a young boy growing up in the midwest, Vietnam was not a war born out of a single event. Rather, it was a conflict that came into focus as I got older, becoming more real as I matured.
I noticed it first through my father’s eyes. A veteran of World War II, he believed in his country and the military it sent to fight its battles. He despised the protestors and wasn’t afraid to say it.
Still, we were on the fringes of the Vietnam War. It had not touched us yet.
In junior high school, they burned down Old Main, a historic building on the college campus, just to watch it burn. My young companions and I tried to comprehend what was happening around us, not knowing how ill-equipped we were to try.
As we got older, I began to worry that the war would finally touch us. My older brother reached conscription age and got a lottery number. He was my role model, my mentor, and I adored him. I was not ready for him to march off to war.
Thankfully, before he had to go, the draft ended.
By the time I joined, there were no Americans left in Vietnam at all, except for those missing in action. The protestors were still around, of course. I was called the obligatory baby killer and hired assassin by campus hippies, but not with much enthusiasm.
I was on the fringe again.
Later, as a grown man, I met those who weren’t bystanders like me. Some actually watched their brothers go off to war and never return, leaving them with a heartbreak that never ends. Many were actually there, fighting for their country and doing their duty.
When they came home, they did not expect ticker tape parades; they only expected someone – anyone – to welcome them home. To say thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.
Instead they were spit at, cursed, and told to take off their uniforms as soon as they landed so that no one would know they were in the military.
It is one of the most tragic and shameful periods of American history.
Today, those men and women still carry the scars of betrayal, but they have come to forgive those who showed so much callousness to them when they came home. Nowadays, the Vietnam veterans embrace today’s troops and young veterans with a fervor that can only come from a deliberate and unified vow that this generation will never be treated like theirs.
There is a grace and dignity to that. And a deep, wistful melancholy too.
They are American heroes, every one.
Thank you, and welcome home.
[updated Apr 16]