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March 29, 2023

The Vietnam War Officially Ended 50 Years Ago

A tribute to Vietnam veterans — may God bless each and every one of you and your families.

By Susan Hunt

When a group of individuals collectively epitomize something remarkable, we love to put a label on them. This makes it easier to then succinctly relay broadly brushed character traits of said people when telling a story. One of my favorite uses of this labeling was initiated by news anchor and author Tom Brokaw, referring to those of the WWII era as “The Greatest Generation.” Akin to the reasoning behind him coining this title for those born between 1901-1924, our Vietnam veterans, a facet of the Baby Boomers, has since been dubbed as “The Bravest Generation.”

Spawning from the success of my book, 77 Letters: Operation Morale Booster: Vietnam, I have had the good fortune of spending the better part of the last two years traveling the country interviewing men and women who intimately lived the Vietnam War. In doing so, I garnered a deep understanding as to why they are deserving of such a title.

Just shy of 20 years old, recent high school graduates made up more than half of the 2.9 million deployed to Vietnam, engaging in the most barbaric war of our time. They were led into battles by their superiors, often just a year or two older. These superiors were weighted with the task of plotting and executing dangerous operations with units of young and inexperienced combat soldiers. These “greenies,” not old enough to drink adult beverages at home, were handed a loaded M16 and told to go into the bush and hunt down the phantom-like enemy. For the duration of their tour, they exhaled every breath in high alert, as each step could have proven to be their last in a land riddled with grotesque and lethal booby traps.

At times, ground troops were called upon to remain (in the jungle) overnight (RON), which presented itself with a whole slew of other dangers. The “two step” venomous snake, named for the distance traveled before meeting your Maker after being bitten by this slithering assailant, paled in comparison to coming face to face with a Bengal tiger — and some did. The best our men could do on these RONs was to lay on the ground, cover themselves with loose vegetation, and pray to the high heavens they’d live to see another sunrise. Images of horror were seared into their impressionable minds, giving them a distorted view of right and wrong, an internal conflict no one should ever be forced to experience, especially not at such young ages.

Other young men were flying fighter jets from aircraft carriers, commanding ships, and executing aerial refueling operations. Unique to the Vietnam War were our helicopter pilots. This “bird” and these men may be the most revered as the hallmark of the war. They finessed the hovering aircraft, dropping units into close-range enemy territory, swooping in on rescue missions, completing medevac missions of our wounded and KIAs, and purposely diverting attention away from our ground operations, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice doing so. For these reasons, nothing touches the heart of a Vietnam veteran like the sound of a “Huey,” the nickname given to the Bell family of helicopters used in the war.

This war was unlike any other our ancestors had fought or our history books had prepared us for. On the complete opposite side of the globe, the terrain and weather were two non-personified enemies our military was up against. As a result of hundreds of years of foreign domination, Vietnam nationalists had dug themselves a tunnel system, hundreds of miles long, rivaling any throughout the world. The natives knew the layout of the tunnels and used it to their advantage, giving them an upper hand in successfully ambushing our ground troops. These tunnels turned even uglier in a split second with monsoon rains entrapping our smaller stature soldiers who would be called on to descend into the depths of these tunnels searching for “Charlie,” short for Victor Charlie or VC, a nickname given to the Viet Cong fighters. The natives also had years of preparing booby traps hidden just below the surface or behind a leaf; not one step could be taken for granted. The thick vegetation underneath the waterways naturally entangled the boots on the ground and slowed movement. The weather was also an obstacle hard to prepare for being from a more moderate part of the world. On one end of a tour, the temperatures were relentlessly stabilizing at 120 degrees, and the other end was drenched by months of monsoons. Living outside during monsoon season and traipsing through waterways in boots often led to foot rot, a debilitating condition.

Then there’s the element of definitively identifying the enemy. The men, women, and children working with them in the rice paddies during the day often were on the offensive end of a weapon come nighttime. They had four organized enemy forces to contend with, all possessing different characteristics and strengths: the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the guerrilla warriors of the Viet Cong (VC), and the Chinese Communist Army (ChiCom). Making a concerted effort to steer clear of dipping into the politics of the war, suffice it to say, it was the most misunderstood and controversial war in U.S. history. Who had zero responsibility yet paid the full price? Our soldiers and their families.

Those returning from war had been demonized in a most reprehensible manner. Public opinion had long turned against the war itself yet couldn’t make the distinction between the evils of a war fueled by politics and those young men and women who, whether enlisted or drafted, had taken an oath to serve at the pleasure of the sitting commander-in-chief. These same young men who were shipped off to Vietnam months earlier returned to an ungrateful nation in both words and actions. They were all too often spat on and assaulted both verbally and physically and were kept from obtaining jobs. It was one thing to enter a combat zone and expect violence and quite another to return home from a horrific duty and be on the receiving end of unthinkable rhetoric and violence.

Their “transition” back to civilian life consisted of the time it took to walk off the plane and out the door of the airport. Many were ordered to toss their uniforms in the men’s room trash barrel and exit the airport in civilian clothes … and “try not to look like a soldier out there.” It was also suggested they leave their time “in-country” off their résumé, as it would inevitably keep them from job opportunities. Friends didn’t ask; if they did, they didn’t believe, and instead called them “liars.” This further isolated those who most needed to open up in order to process all they had endured.

I’d be remiss if I failed to applaud the heroic and brave efforts of the women who served with valor and dedication, mostly as nurses, in-country (essentially triage), in nearby Japan (treatment and often return to duty), and those stateside who helped the young men and their families adjust to their new life in a postwar body. Other women served in Vietnam in civilian roles such as the TV “Weather Girl” or “Donut Dollies” for the Red Cross and the like. An even more obscure role but not to be overlooked were the stewardesses who dared to take flights into a war zone. Aside from the danger, they stomached the conversations on the way into Vietnam and the heartbreaks of noticing many not returning on flights home. Collectively, these women provided the shoulders of which today’s women in uniform are standing upon.

There have been some efforts to offer salve to this most deserving community of veterans and their families. One such gesture was the creation of The Wall in Washington, DC, memorializing the 58,418 men and women who were killed in action in Vietnam. Names continue to be added as the remains of 2,646 MIAs are recovered and repatriated. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan was instrumental in establishing a collaborative program between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the United States of conducting annual excavations in search of soldiers of all sides of this war. The purpose of this program is to recover the remains and repatriate the soldiers to their respective homelands, bringing some closure to their loved ones. Another such gesture of respect was the declaration of the first Vietnam Veterans Day by President Richard Nixon in 1974. Later in 2017, it was signed into law by President Donald Trump that March 29 would be forevermore National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

On this day, there are memorial services around the country specifically remembering those who served during the years of the 20-year war: 1955-1975. This recognition makes no distinction between those who served in-country fighting, in-theatre as support, or elsewhere on other assignments, as all were called to serve, and none could self-determine where they served.

Their fight was not left behind in Vietnam, and many who never saw Vietnam took up “arms” in the stateside battle for respect. Our Vietnam veterans organized rally points for our returning soldiers of more recent wars, greeting them in groups as they returned to United States soil. For those who returned in honor under the flag, their funerals were protected from misguided protesters with the establishment of Rolling Thunder, a band of motorcyclists who guard the sanctity and honor of interment of those who wore the uniform. The grit of The Bravest Generation is unparalleled. Their arduous fight on Capitol Hill to recognize the government’s use of Agent Orange and other dioxins during the war in Vietnam has paved the way and set a precedent for compensation for younger veterans who were exposed to chemicals in the infamous burn pits.

No rest for the weary — their bravery has yet to fade. Now, 50 years postwar, having been shamed into silence all these years, they are once again finding the courage to share their experiences before their efforts and the lessons to be learned are gone forever. If you have an opportunity to talk with a Vietnam veteran, cherish it. If you are unsure, ask them if they would be comfortable talking about their service. I am confident your life will be enhanced for having done so. In 1966, most of our deploying young soldiers didn’t even know where Vietnam was located on a map. Yet today, at the mention of their first impression of Vietnam, they can still hear the whopping of the Huey, feel the oppressive wall of heat, and smell the stench from the burning chemicals like it was yesterday.

Revealing heroes and restoring honor to The Bravest Generation. On this, the 50th anniversary of the day the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was disestablished, may God bless each and every one of you who served, and your families.

Susan Hunt is author of 77 Letters: Operation Morale Booster: Vietnam.

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