Fifty years ago, few if any Americans could have imagined that an announcement by President Kennedy that the U.S. would commit more material and advisory support to South Vietnam would change, divide and define our nation — and really, an entire generation.
But no one felt those deep divisions more than those who were, in so many cases, drafted into the service and sent to southeast Asia to fight. For after carrying out their orders, watching colleagues die by their sides, confronting death on an hourly basis in jungles and river deltas far from home, many returned to a homeland that had turned on them as well as on their work.
As Gloucester lawyer Mark Nestor puts it in today’s letter at right — signed, as he always does, from the “Vietnam Class of ‘70” — too many Americans “mistook the warriors for the war.” The result was one of the most shameful episodes in our nation’s history — a period when returning veterans who had served their country were not offered aid toward re-entering American life and the work force, but instead shamed and villified as killers in a war that even many of them would never truly understand.
Thankfully, those sentiments have subsided among most Americans in the more than three decades since. While many have often questioned the U.S. decision and policy-making roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example – and the 1991 Persian Gulf War before that — nearly all have consistently rallied around supporting our troops who are on the front lines, virtually all have expressed our gratitude to them for their service, and many are at least aware of the veterans services available to them.
That’s still not the case for too many Vietnam veterans, who still often don’t play active roles in groups such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS, and still have not been able to gain the level of closure they deserve. Yet Sunday morning is a chance to finally give them that — and to express the level of support and gratitude they really deserved so many years ago.
In Gloucester, Rockport and Manchester, local parades and touching ceremonies will once again pay homage to Veterans Day. And this year, those events should extend a special salute to those Vietnam veterans on the 50-year anniversary of the beginning of that war, while also remembering those who fought in Vietnam and never returned, like the 11 young Gloucester men enshrined on the city’s Vietnam Memorial outside Gloucester High School.
If you can’t attend, be sure to express your thanks to any and all veterans whom you may meet over this Veterans Day weekend.
They deserve nothing short of our utmost and unconditional thanks and support — the kind of thanks too many of them have never heard.