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Vietnam Veterans: Why Now?

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

After 50 years veterans’ legacy continues to grow

By Dennis Howland, Vietnam Veterans of America, Northern Utah Chapter

Utah’s Vietnam Memorial Replica Wall. VALOR Image
Action from 1968 Operation Pegasus: American soldiers aiding South Vietnamese forces to lift the siege of Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Larry Burrows | TIME Magazine | Getty Images

“Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.” This is the motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America since its chartering in 1978. Many ask questions about our motto because they don’t know or understand its roots.

When we returned from our war in Southeast Asia, we anticipated joining veteran organizations as many of us sought brotherhood, or sisterhood, and a sense of belonging to something associated with home. Our fathers and grandfathers belonged so we set about wanting to join their organizations. Social rejection by our own country took a toll on the majority of us. Many of us were called names, spit on, swore at, had rocks thrown at us, had garbage and excrement dumped on us; by the many who feared our war, feared being drafted, didn’t understand being faithful to the oath we took in service of our country, or just looking for something to be angry at to mask their own feelings of inadequacy or to fear what they didn’t experience or accept.

Many veteran organizations told us that our war wasn’t a real war, it was illegitimate, and we were not welcome to join them. It was mainly seasoned veterans from previous conflicts trying to convince us that we had not been to war. And in many cases, we were asked to leave their facilities. Our response eventually was simple — to 58,000 kids killed in Vietnam or their families it certainly wasn’t a family outing or a picnic. Our older veterans were so wrong.

Many Vietnam Veterans became recluse, dropped out of society and those angry enough regarding our treatment fought back.

We didn’t have scientific terms for what ate us up inside. We not only couldn’t make other people or even other veterans to understand but we couldn’t understand what was destroying us mentally and physically. It was heartbreaking for many to attempt to explain only to be laughed at or rejected by even our closest loved ones. Many Vietnam Veterans ended up in the legal system and incarcerated because their anger and confusion caused them to violently act out. Many, still today, wake up to the same nightmares they have experienced for the past five decades.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not known, discussed, or even defined. It would take 30 years for PTSD to be a common term used in the military and in our homes. It is a word we had to borrow from our children and grandchildren who were returning home from Desert Shield, Desert Storm, OEF/OIF, and the like. With the addition of health problems related to toxic chemical exposure, especially Agent Orange, Vietnam Veterans had to fight for everything we received from a government that rejected us. A government that would not admit that they had sprayed a killer chemical across a country without much regard for what it was doing to our nation’s heroes.

Vietnam Veterans of America proves powerful ally

Vietnam Veterans of America is one of the strongest lobbying groups that push for veterans’ benefits. Nearly everything we have achieved has been because we wouldn’t take no for an answer and constantly pursue what we believed in — what we believe is right. We swore that those young people who went through multiple deployments, those who suffered from not only physical and mental health problems from war, and even those mature veterans who rejected us would never be subjected to the abuse Vietnam Veterans experienced. So young or old, we vowed that “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” To do this we got heavily involved in the political arena, the public affairs environment and probably in most cases forced our nation’s leaders, our families, and our neighbors to stop and observe our nation’s involvement in being the world’s peacemaker had done to a generation of young military men and women.

1968. Action from Operation Pegasus: American soldiers aiding South Vietnamese forces to lift the siege of Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Larry Burrows | TIME Magazine | Getty Images
Utah’s Vietnam Memorial Replica Wall includes the names of the 58,317 men and women who died or went missing in action during the Vietnam War. It is located at Layton Commons Park. VALOR image.

When we were constantly turned away, we went back — again and again. When we were told the price of taking care of our veterans was too expensive and told that it was too high of a price to give our young men and women benefits, we yelled back — “price Hell, our country’s leaders need to understand it isn’t the price of war, it is the cost of war!” We have constantly spent our energies, resources and many of our fellow veterans have spent their lives making sure not only are Vietnam Veterans taken care of but those who served in previous conflicts and those yet to come will not experience the same indifference, lack of respect, or ignoring the same effects of war on our military that we experienced. It’s Hell when you not only have to worry about the jackass shooting at you but worry about the ignorance and the turning of backs on you by the very people who sent you to be shot at. Somehow, that doesn’t make sense to me.

To understand our commitment, our loyalty and dedication to our service and this nation, is to understand why, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” is so important to each of us from the ’Nam generation. And we are proud of not only that motto but it is ours. It belongs to us. It explains who we are. Exactly.

Vietnam War veterans continues to prove their worth

We are often asked, “Why are people interested in us now?” I believe its because we represent the generation of innocence — a time when things were good across America. It was a time that most were safe to go about their routine lives. We grew up when things were simple. We believed that a fight worth fighting was a fight to be won. Most of those who served during the Vietnam War and those who served in-country didn’t really understand the politics of that war, probably didn’t care. We understood our country needed us to serve over there and without much debate we served. We were a generation that saw the positive things of our lives. We had an attitude that we could accomplish anything worth going after. That is what we believed in.

Perhaps 50 years later people are trying to understand why, today, we still hang on to that time of our lives. Perhaps, how we lived that life. Perhaps why so many of us willingly served and risked it all for our country. I’m not sure why they are asking about us now. Maybe they are looking for similarities or just wonder what it is that they missed as our generation grew older. Perhaps simply looking for something to believe in as strongly as we believed in ourselves. Perhaps looking to understand why we stay dedicated to a cause that sometimes seems impossible to be successful at. And we just don’t quit.

I believe that due to our persistence, hard work, and refusal to hide or take no for an answer — now 50 years later we are realizing that our younger generation of military men and women are our children and grandchildren. They are coming home to a nation that is starting to take notice of those Vietnam Veterans who continue to serve as community and nation-wide leaders and that they will continue to the last breath to assure our “kids” will be taken care of, that we won’t allow them to be refused what they have earned. We are leading that acknowledgment of their service, their dedication, and making darn sure they are taken care of. Our fight will continue.

Our younger generation of military men and women are marching in similar boots as we Vietnam Veterans — both serving in a long (20 years), unpopular war, a war that politicians tried to fight and didn’t know how and lacked the ability to win. If the military had been granted the authority to direct the fight of both wars, Vietnam and Afghanistan, chances are they would have been over in record time. Just the opposite occurred with ignorance of battle and lack of experience running our wars from outside the military, in both cases.

Like Vietnam, Afghanistan ended with piss-poor planning. The withdrawal was chaotic and deemed a failure. The advice from many military advisors fell on deaf ears. Foreseeing, the result didn’t appear to be a consideration. Nor did the years to follow. Our nonmilitary leadership failed in both instances. As it is, the governments we put in power failed in both places. We failed a people who depended on us. Not our military men and women but our leadership in D.C. Basically, with America gone, allies gave up what we had helped them fight for. We left them with a lesser ability to defend their homes and families. When we pulled from Afghanistan, terrorists took over. In Vietnam the Communists took over. The last combat action in Afghanistan ended with the loss of 13 lives, mostly Marines. When the Mayaguez incident took place, which is what President Gerald Ford called the last combat action of the Vietnam War in 1975, 13 dead Marines were among one of the casualties of the event.

It is said, “If we don’t pay attention to our history, we are bound to repeat it.” And perhaps that is the answer; we didn’t learn the first time around. Let’s hope we learned this time.

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