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2013-04-10 / Voices

Vietnam Veterans deserve more than paper thanks

JIM KENT

March 29, 1973: I was busy counting down to my high school graduation while the evening news was announcing the end of the daily body count that I – and millions of Americans – had become, sadly, accustomed to over the previous years.

While we went about with our routine lives, the last U.S. combat troops in Vietnam were being withdrawn from Southeast Asia’s jungles on what President Richard M. Nixon described as “the day we have all worked and prayed for."

Too true.

Like many other young men my age, thoughts of the draft were never far from my mind; nor had they been for quite some time. At 17, I still had almost a year before I was due to register. Besides, I’d planned to enlist in the Marine Corps after high school or college anyway – at least, that’s what I’d been saying since elementary school.

But I’d also watched the fit young men in their crisp new uniforms go boldly off to war, and the flag-draped coffins return - by the thousands – to mothers and wives, friends and loved ones…since I was 9 years old.

That’s a long time to watch a nation grieve – especially when you’re a child.

Still, the possibility of dying didn’t bother me nearly as much as the thought of coming home maimed and mangled did. I’d been reading books on military history for years, had seen all kinds of graphic photographs and films, knew all kinds of statistics; but the reality of combat’s effects only took hold as a result of watching the evening news.

Night after night, year after year, an entire country – viewers of all ages - sat transfixed in front of their television sets as our young men fought and died half-a-world away.

Beginning with covert operations and military advisors in the mid-tolate

1950s - around the time I was born, “official” combat troops hit the Vietnam jungles in 1965 and just kept on coming until they topped the half-million mark – as I entered the 8th grade.

Unlike the American military history I was used to in the books my father gave me this wasn’t a war that everyone supported with flags waving, drums beating and crowds cheering. This “conflict” which - like Korea - was never a declared war, was dividing the country. And as much as many may not have intended to, those calling for its end too often saw our military personnel - not the politicians who sent them to do their bidding - as the reason for our being in the midst of a foreign civil war.

By the time I was 18, our involvement in Vietnam – and the draft – had all but ended. I did enlist in the Marine Corps several years later, partially because I planned to; but also because I felt I owed a debt of gratitude for not having to serve in that 20-year debacle that took some 58,000 young American lives: 190 of them from South Dakota.

Last month, South Dakota joined other states across the country in setting aside a day - March 30 here, as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”. The need for such a designation goes back to the fact that rather than an official “welcome home” from their countrymen – with bands playing and tickertape flowing, far too many Vietnam veterans were forced to deplane in civilian clothes upon their arrival to the states in order to avoid the wrath of those protesting the war.

To my knowledge, none of the politicians who sent them in harm’s way were at the airport protecting them from those hostile crowds.

It’s great that these men – and women – are finally getting the recognition they deserve along with a promise from their country to current and future servicemen and women that “such behavior will never happen again”.

Of course, words – and the proclamations they comprise, are easily written and more easily spoken.

In spite of the many major events held in cities across the country that included acknowledgements by local and state officials, I could find just one small celebration of South Dakota’s “Vietnam Veterans Day” here in the state which consistently touts its high military service per capita numbers. That ceremony was hosted by Rapid City’s American Legion Post 22.

I hope there might have been a few more such celebrations across the state where veterans raised a salute to their own – a process that’s quite common “in the ranks”.

But the purpose of the day is for the public and, more importantly, the politicians who so readily send our youth into combat to acknowledge the service of the 27, 527 South Dakotans who fought in the jungles of Vietnam. It would have been nice, therefore, if someone in those positions of leadership had taken the time to make an official statement, host or attend a ceremony, or even write a comment – especially since this was South Dakota’s first official “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”.

True, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the bill creating the day on March 6th and then, apparently, left the room. None of the state’s Congressional delegation had a comment to offer, though Kristi Noem did release a mid- March column noting that “not a day goes by” when she doesn’t think of our veterans. A bit too general, I think, for a group that was pretty much written off for decades and, again, not specific to the day – which, after all, was set aside for a reason.

In discussing this with my wife, she pointed out that Easter weekend – which “Vietnam Veterans Day” fell on, is a very busy time for most folks (indicated by both Kristi Noem and John Thune attending the same Sioux Falls prayer breakfast on Good Friday).

I’m sure many Vietnam veterans found themselves equally “busy” on a variety of holy days – and holidays – while in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Perhaps, now that we’ve decided to set aside a day that declares “this won’t happen again”, our politicians could actually lead through example by hosting – or even attending – the day’s events to ensure that promise is upheld.

I believe it’s referred to as “walking your talk”.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist for the Rapid City Journal and Indian Country Today and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, Voice of America Radio, National Public Radio, Nebraska Public Radio, and National Native News Radio. He can be reached at kentvfte@gwtc.net.

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