Memorial Day is a time to honor those who died in service to our nation

The last Monday in May has been established by Congress as Memorial Day, the day to remember, honor and mourn the Americans who have died in the country’s wars. We should all put aside our differences on May 27 to thank those who gave their last full measure to protect America’s “government of the people, by the people and for the people” as President Abraham Lincoln described it.

Memorial Day encompasses the almost 1.4 million Americans who have died in the country’s wars and conflicts, beginning with the Revolutionary War. That figure does not tell the full story of our war dead because each conflict leaves a broad wake of destruction, including future deaths of service personnel from war-related physical and psychological wounds, substance abuse, suicide and exposure to harmful substances like Agent Orange and burn pit emissions.

Our recent conflicts, starting with the Korean war, had disappointing outcomes, which left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, including some veterans who fought in them. I remember going overseas in 1968 with a country generally in support of the Vietnam War and returning in 1969 to a fiercely divided country. Even though the 58,220 Americans who died in the Vietnam War served honorably, they did not get the measure of respect owed to them by a broad spectrum of their countrymen. It took years for many Americans to separate their anger against the war from their feelings toward those who served in it. The dead, and the survivors, were doing just what was asked of them. The politicians, not the soldiers, were responsible for the unfortunate outcomes.

When I returned from Vietnam, I was proud of my service and felt like we had kept South Vietnam from being taken over by the Communists. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, it was like a knife to the heart for me and many other Vietnam veterans. All of those lives had been wasted with nothing to show for it, not to mention the many thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who died, the American troops who returned home with serious health problems that would plague them for years to come and the lingering hard feelings of Americans on both sides of the war issue. Was it all for naught?

There was nothing to do for it those years later, but Americans could step forward to remember and memorialize the brave Americans who lost their lives in service to the country. An Idaho Falls group, the Freedom Bird, named after the flights that took the troops home from Vietnam, decided to do just that. Freedom Bird announced plans in 1984 to construct a state memorial to recognize and honor those who died in the war. The funds were raised, the state designation was obtained and the Idaho Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on August 4, 1990.

Freedom Bird members followed up with a book recognizing the 251 Idahoans who were listed as dead or missing. The book, “Reasons to Remember: A tribute to the unsung heroes of the Vietnam War” was written by Marilyn Whyte of Blackfoot and published in 2002. It included biographies of the fallen, as well as stories based on input furnished by their survivors. It provided an insight into the character of many of these individuals who died in service to their country.

The book is, unfortunately, out of print, but used copies are available on Amazon. More can be found about the Freedom Bird project in my book, “Vietnam…Can’t Get You Out of My Mind,” which is also available on Amazon or from Ridenbaugh Press.

The point is that we all have the ability, just like the Freedom Bird members, to take the time and effort to honor those who have died in the United States’ wars and conflicts. Dislike for the conflict itself is beside the point. May 27 will soon be upon us and it is incumbent upon Idahoans and other Americans, regardless of political leanings, to pay respects to the men and women who have given their all for the Land of the free and home of the brave.

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2 thoughts on “Memorial Day is a time to honor those who died in service to our nation”

  1. Thank you for your column today in the Press. On April 30, 1975, 19 year old Marine Darwin Judge was killed by sniper fire as he helped evacuate people from Saigon. The week before, this 17 year old sat with him in church when he was home on leave. He was one of the last casualties of the Viet Nam war. I don’t want his bravery and sacrifice to ever be forgotten.

    1. Cynthia: We should all remember Darwin for putting his life in jeopardy to evacuate people on that chaotic day. It is particularly heartbreaking to be among the last casualties of a war gone wrong. Please tell me a little more about him. Jim

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