Idahoans are urged to thank Vietnam Veterans for their service on March 29 and to “give them the welcome home they never received.” Idaho’s Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day is part of the celebration of National Vietnam War Veterans Day, which commemorates the return of all U.S. troops and POWs on March 29, 1973. A ceremony had been scheduled for March 29 at the State Capitol, but was cancelled due to Covid-19 concerns.
Having arrived back home from 407 days of service in Vietnam on August 30, 1969, I can say that the reception was not particularly unpleasant. On the way home we’d been warned to expect anti-war demonstrators when we landed in California. There were a few, but not too strident. The folks at home in Magic Valley were generally supportive but I quickly learned there was not much point in talking about my Vietnam experience.
During the next three years, I worked in former Senator Len Jordan’s office in Washington and was the staffer who discussed the Vietnam War with the thousands of people who visited the office to lobby against it. Most were well intentioned and made valid arguments against the war. Quite a number accused the troops of atrocities, using words like “baby killers.” I told them there were a few bad apples but that the great majority of the soldiers were there to honorably serve their country.
Like many Vietnam Veterans, I was proud of volunteering to serve in that war. Those who were drafted to serve did so with equal dedication. We did not expect to be welcomed home as heroes, but as people who had done what was asked of us.
Nine million Americans served during the Vietnam era, 2.7 million of them in Vietnam. 58,220 Americans died in the War, about 251 from Idaho. 2,500 were prisoners of war and 1,587 are still missing/unaccounted for. Over 300,000 were wounded and many more have suffered from PTSD, drug or alcohol abuse, suicide or Agent Orange. The majority went on to lead productive lives.
I have met Vietnam Vets who came to believe it was shameful to have served in that war. They thought so because they met with indifference or disrespect when they came home. Movie and TV stereotypes of crazed Vietnam Veterans did not help. While it is fair game to criticize a war, dislike for a war should not extend to those who honorably served in it.
We were told we were protecting our country by fighting international Communism. Looking back, I have questions about that, but hindsight is always 20-20.
What I do know is that I came home thinking we would prevail in the war. I was hoping so because I had worked and lived alongside many dedicated South Vietnamese troops who became friends. It broke my heart when South Vietnam fell. I knew my friends were either killed or imprisoned. It still eats at me.
Like many of my fellow vets, it is hard to see what we accomplished at such a cost. From my perspective, the very best thanks and welcome home would be that we learn from the Vietnam experience and never repeat it. Unfortunately, that did not happen with the disastrous war in Iraq. If we can resist the march to another unnecessary war, I’d feel blessed.
One thing that is particularly heartening is the way returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated–with thanks and respect. Even if people have serious concerns about the wisdom of either or both wars, they have rightly embraced those who stepped forward to serve. That is good progress.
Jim Jones served in Vietnam from July 1968 to August 1969. He has written about that experience and its effect on his life in “Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind.”