In 2012, the President of the United States proclaimed March 29th to be National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The date was forty-seven years after the fighting in LZ X-Ray and forty-eight years after Everett Alvarez Jr. became the first American pilot to be shot down and taken prisoner. The date was forty-four years after Marines fought house-to-house in the city of Hue and far too many years after service members returned home to a nation that was struggling to separate the war from the warrior. Signed into law in 2017, National Vietnam War Veterans Day has been set aside as a day to honor the legacy of the millions who served our nation during the Vietnam war.
The conflict in Vietnam began with Americans advising South Vietnamese troops in combat and soon became a full-fledged war, even though there never was a formal declaration of war. Americans and their allies bravely stood, as their fathers had a generation before, and marched through unbearable heat, torrential rains, and the threat of a well-hidden enemy. Despite all of these challenges and more, American troops saw consistent military victories throughout the Vietnam War; defeating the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive, which was the largest offensive to be mounted by the enemy, and continuing to win battles when they were, at times, greatly outnumbered. Service members showed time and time again that they were committed to protecting the liberties and freedoms enjoyed by so many Americans back home.
For the first time in history, Americans were able to watch the fighting from the Vietnam War play out on their television sets, both in Vietnam and on the increasingly violent streets of the United States. Chaos and uncertainty wreaked havoc in America, and yet in Vietnam grunts continued to hump through nightmarish terrain, pilots continued to fly missions, and nurses, doctors, and medics continued to heal young warriors. Service members continued to carry out their orders, showing bravery and resolve whenever the situation called for it.
Throughout and after the Vietnam War, thousands of men returned home with physical injuries and many more later would come to suffer from exposure to Agent Orange and other toxins. More than 58,000 brave heroes paid the ultimate price for our freedoms, their names forever inscribed on the black granite panels of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
When Vietnam veterans did return, it was often an unpleasant homecoming. Name calling, leering looks, and frequent mistreatment were part of the experience. The parades of their fathers’ generation seemed a thing of the past. This experience lit a spark among Vietnam veterans who worked together and made a commitment that the next generation of service members would receive the support and respect they deserved.
When it came time to send our next generation of men and women to war as part of Operation Desert Storm, it was the Vietnam veterans who stepped up to welcome them home; offering salutes, handshakes, and parades for those now returning home from conflict zones. Vietnam veterans were saying “thank you for your service” and teaching their children, the next generation, to say it too. Through this work Vietnam veterans taught us the right way to treat the men and women in uniform who represent our country.
National Vietnam War Veterans Day is an opportunity for national reconciliation. It offers a chance for a now grateful nation to recognize the fortitude and commitment that Vietnam veterans showed and continue to show every day. March 29th is an opportunity to thank and honor the 2.7 million service members who served in Vietnam. For Vietnam veterans, this is a day when they finally receive the recognition and respect that was missing so many years ago. For everyone else, while we cannot go back and fix the mistakes of the past, we can work towards ensuring that all Vietnam veterans receive the welcome home they truly deserve.