LTC (retired) Keith Price was the guest speaker at Tuesdays Vietnam Veterans Lapel Pinning. Heading up the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2524, his summary of the Vietnam conflict and the fact that too little has been done too late was well received and worth sharing for those not present.
Thank you all very much for joining us in this ceremony to bestow some recognition on members of the Armed Forces who were on active duty during the roughly 20 years during which the United States was involved in the conflict in Vietnam. About nine million Americans served in the military during the period of our country’s involvement in Vietnam, with an estimated seven million still alive today.
It’s great to see these veterans of that era here to receive their lapel pin. It is a small token, but a sincere one, and helps to right an old wrong. It is no secret our service members returning from Vietnam in the late 1960s were frequently treated poorly and insulted. And it was just because they answered their country’s call and marched off to do their duty. And especially for the ground troops in Vietnam, that duty was often performed at great risk.
I won’t say much today, and I don’t need to. The story of the Vietnam era is well known, even to those who weren’t alive at the time. As we all know, it was a time of unrest and riots and demonstrations and assassinations. Vietnam was not the only cause of that turmoil but it was a major part of it, and the war touched most Americans directly.
Let’s put this in perspective. Today,many Americans go through their lives without personally knowing anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. In eight years of Operation Iraq Freedom, the United States lost roughly 4,400 killed, and in about 14 years in Afghanistan we lost about 2,400. But about 58,000 were killed in Vietnam, the vast majority during the peak years of 1965-1970. During the war’s peak in ‘67,’68, and ‘69, between 200-300 American service members were killed every week in Vietnam, and many of us can still remember the weekly casualty figures being reported on the evening news by the network anchors of the day like Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley. And, that is not even to mention that troop strength in Vietnam peaked at 543,000 in the spring of 1969. And, all this at a time when the United States had a population only about two-thirds of what it is now. So the war had a huge impact across the country.
Everybody knew someone who went. If it wasn’t someone from your own home, it was a second cousin maybe, or the kid from across the road, or someone you saw at church. Most came back in good shape, and like generations before them, they picked their lives back up and moved on.
Many of you may wonder why the period of service recognized with these lapel pins is so long, from 1955-1975. Vietnam is unique in that for most folks it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly when it began. And it seemed to end in fits and starts. As recognized by this ceremony, the start point is when the United States military assistance advisory group was formed in November 1955. And it just seemed to grow after that.
There were advisors, and the more advisors. By 1964, major combat units and then the big buildup and bloody fighting many of us remember. After 1969 came Vietnamization and a rapid draw down of our own troops until the ceasefire was signed in January 1973.
The rest of our troops came home, we got our POW’s back, and most Americans figured we were done with Vietnam. But North Vietnam had other ideas and the ceasefire didn’t hold. Saigon fell and we evacuated our embassy at the end of April 1975. But even that was not quite the end of it. A couple of weeks later, the Khmer Rouge in charge of Cambodia seized a US cargo vessel called the Mayaguez and US forces were sent to free the crew. On May 15, 1975, when the Mayaguez operation was complete, the US military involvement in the Vietnam Theatre was finally over.
The height of the Vietnam War is 45 and 50 years behind us now, and it is fitting and proper that we recognize those veterans who answered their country’s call to serve in an unpopular war when many others didn’t or wouldn’t.
But through their example the Vietnam vets have helped teach us a lesson. Let me give you an illustration of that. When I was returning home after a year in Iraq in 2006, our first stop in the United States was Bangor, Maine. In the reception area a dozen or more older veterans and their spouses were holding signs and balloons, with drinks and snacks on a table, and we were met with calls of “Welcome Home” and “Thank you.” This was a routine this group did almost every day as flights of redeploying troops stopped in.
Most of that welcoming committee were in their 60s then, in other words of the Vietnam generation. Some of them told members of our group that they did not want Iraq vets to experience the same kind of unfriendly welcome many Vietnam vets received 30 years before. It was so great to see them there, and very much appreciated by all of us.
With the awarding of these lapel pins today we can take a small step in returning that favor, help make amends to Vietnam veterans, and salute them for a job well done.
Thank you, and thank you all for your attendance today.