COLUMBIA — How many realized that Wednesday marked the 3oth anniversary of the last American troops to leave Vietnam — and that the U.S. Congress had designated that day as "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day"?
You did not? You are not alone. I searched in vain in both local and statewide newspapers and neither heard nor viewed it mentioned on local radio and television. To describe the Vietnam War as an unpopular one is an understatement of colossal magnitude — but do not the more than 9 million who served, the 58,156 who sacrificed their lives and the 303,704 who were wounded merit even a passing notice?
U.S. Marine journalist Chelsea Flowers, writing of the "Welcome Home Day" in the Camp Lejeune, N.C., base newspaper, described its significance in this comparison of those who did return 30-plus years ago. "On March 30, 1973 all U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam. Instead of receiving a welcome fitting for the sacrifice they made for this country, the majority of the returning troops were met with criticism and hostility. Some were drafted, yet fought and died for their comrades only to be diminished for their accomplishments upon their return."
Much of the media, academic elites, Hollywood and its activists, the anti-war underground and too much of America portrayed our troops as mindless robots, ignorant hillbillies, uneducated dropouts, drug addicts or psychopaths. The motion picture industry took it to new depths, placing these painted as flawed Marines and soldiers under the command of largely moronic and cowardly but career opportunistic officers.
Future U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Kerry joined this facade by testifying before Congress of the beastly and commonplace atrocities committed on the battlefield by our troops, often with the knowledge and approval of their superiors. Widely published and accepted as gospel, this testimony was offered by a junior Navy officer whose Vietnam experience spanned but 4 months in small boats on the Mekong River — hardly a credible eyewitness or reputable reporter.
He was not alone in manufacturing rumor, innuendo, lies and damn lies to undermine the war effort and sully the character of our fighting men. The Detroit "Winter Soldier" rally in 1970, staged by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War was an example of unreality run amok as pseudo-vets recounted invented atrocities. The group's executive secretary, Al Hubbard, who claimed to be a combat wounded pilot, was found to have been a sergeant who never left McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash.
Celebrities at the forefront of Vietnam War protests included Jane Fonda, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, pediatrician Benjamin Spock and Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan. CBS's Dan Rather put on a 1990's documentary "The Wall Within" describing the savage combat and unhealed psychological wounds suffered by six selected Vietnam veterans. Of the six, only one had ever served in Vietnam.
Admittedly, Vietnam was not a popular war; to this day there are misgivings and doubts as to both its necessity and legitimacy. And there were atrocities committed on both sides — as have plagued all wars from the beginning of time. To brandish the "My Lai Massacre," however, as the norm rather than the exception as some continue to argue is reprehensible — an undeserved slur on the reputations of our armed forces.
This past Wednesday went largely unremembered as the termination of a long and widely detested conflict. But the approximately 9 million who went and the 58,156 who did not come back deserve better than the invective, the ridicule, the vitriol and the abuse heaped upon them by an American public demonstrating the Limbo Rock's "How low can you go"? Protest and demonstration are free expression under the Constitution; however, the attacks on these young kids — who without being asked their opinion, went courageously into harm's way — are far below the belt.
The record of our armed forces in Vietnam dispels not a few myths. Ninety-seven percent were discharged honorably, 91 percent said they were glad they served and 74 percent said they would do it again. One-half of 1 percent have been jailed for crimes, and Vietnam veterans are the best educated our nation has deployed to combat — with 79 percent having high school educations — and have a higher employment rate than nonveterans.
Veterans of the Vietnam War seek no apology for the verbal abuse nor for the years of being ignored. We see that debt repaid in full by the 180-degree shift in public attitude in the recognition and respect accorded the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed to the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. and Mrs. America, you have done yourselves proud this time.
Instead, say a belated "Thank you" or "Bravo Zulu" — well done — just to show you remember and appreciate that generation's courage and sacrifices before it is too late.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.