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50 Years Later, Vietnam Veterans Finally Get Official Tribute to Their Service and Sacrifice

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For three days last week, the government sought to make up for decades of neglect with a series of events on the National Mall meant as a symbolic “homecoming” for Vietnam veterans.

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, set up by President Barack Obama in 2012 and authorized by Congress, billed the belated recognition as a “Welcome Home Celebration,” although the term “celebration” can seem utterly out of place in reference to a long and divisive conflict that took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and triggered widespread anti-war protests.

Navy Cmdr. Brian Wierzbicki, a Pentagon spokesman for the commemoration, said the intent of describing the events as a celebration was to mark the contributions of those who served in Vietnam on the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops in March 1973.

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“We are using ‘celebration’ in the context of giving Vietnam Veterans the ‘welcome home’ celebration they deserved, yet never received” from official Washington, Wierzbicki said.

“It’s not a celebration of war, it’s a celebration of veterans’ service,” said Steve Maxner, director of the Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University.

“It’s about celebrating service; that’s what the whole commemoration is about,” Maxner said, but some of the veterans at the events said that the organizers could have made a better choice of words.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Tom Braaten, who flew CH-46 helicopters out of Marble Mountain near Da Nang in Vietnam in 1969-70, said the “Welcome Home Celebration” promotional material “wasn’t worded terribly well,” but the tribute to Vietnam veterans was long overdue.

It didn’t happen to him, Braaten said, but he had friends who served in Vietnam who were “spit on and called ‘babykiller'” when they returned to the States.

“That is a curious word” to be used in the context of the Vietnam war, former Army Capt. Brock Nicholson, a flight platoon leader with the 48th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam, said of the celebration term.

“There might have been a better word,” said Nicholson, but he agreed with Braaten that the wording should not detract from the main purpose of the events on the National Mall, which was to honor veterans.

“Am I glad I went to Vietnam — absolutely,” Nicholson said, adding that he believed the U.S. involvement probably prevented more aggression by the North Vietnamese in Southeast Asia.

The site for the events on the mall off Independence Avenue was dubbed “Camp Legacy” and featured a static display of Vietnam-era helicopters, panel discussions on veterans issues, military band concerts, drill team performances, and exhibits on a range of topics from military dogs to the CIA’s efforts in Vietnam.

The events also offered veterans a chance to renew old friendships and reflect on what they saw and did during their tours, and how they coped with the near-constant pressure of what was often described as a 360-degree war in which traditional front lines were only a sometimes thing.

Retired Air Force Col. Russell Stephenson, a B-52 Stratofortress pilot, said his greatest fear did not come from the enemy’s surface-to-air missiles but rather from the concern that his aircraft’s load of “dumb” bombs would devastate friendly forces below on missions in 1968 to help lift the siege by the North Vietnamese of the Marine base at Khe Sanh, about six miles from the Laotian border in the northwestern sector of South Vietnam known as I Corps.

As he would make his approach, Marine spotters on the ground would keep pressing him to come in “closer, closer,” Stephenson told Military.com on the first day of the commemoration that began with a fly-by of four vintage UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, the workhorse rotary aircraft of the war, and remarks by a range of officials.

One of the speakers was Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a naval flight officer who served three tours in Vietnam aboard a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft. “Better late than never. We’re here to do what should have been done 50 years ago,” said Carper, who is the last Vietnam veteran serving in the Senate.

Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., a former Army lieutenant who lost his left arm in a 1971 convoy ambush in Vietnam, said he believed there are only two other remaining Vietnam veterans serving in the House — Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich.

In a phone interview, Baird, who served with the 523rd Transportation Company and was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, said, “From my standpoint, it’s not only those who served” in Vietnam who should be honored. “It’s just as important to recognize those families” of service members who went to Vietnam.

Thompson, a former staff sergeant who served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, said in a phone interview, “I think it’s important to recognize the service of those of us” who went to Vietnam, adding that the commemoration offered an opportunity for the public “to get a better understanding of what soldiers did” in the war.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, representing the Defense Department, said that Vietnam veterans deserve “our thanks, our respect and our steadfast support. Regrettably, that has not always been the case. You served in divided times and too often you were blamed or scorned for serving your country.”

As always, when the subject is the Vietnam War, there were differences of opinion during panel discussions on the what-ifs in terms of strategy and tactics that might have changed the outcome of the war.

There was also much comment on the lack of an official ticker tape welcome home parade for the veterans, though there was a series of parades organized locally across the country with an overriding “Welcome Home” theme to recognize Vietnam veterans who did their duty in a war that much of the nation had turned against.

In May 1985 in New York City, then-Mayor Ed Koch led an estimated 25,000 Vietnam veterans across the Brooklyn Bridge and then up Broadway through the financial district where the marchers were showered with ticker tape. The United Press International headline was “10 Years Late, Vietnam Veterans Get Their Parade At Last.”

Retired Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S.forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, attended the New York City parade and the following year served as the grand marshal for a much bigger event in Chicago.

The New York Times account of the June 1986 Chicago parade said, “An estimated 200,000 people marched today in what sponsors called the largest parade of Vietnam veterans ever held, and a half million spectators cheered them.

“As the parade wound through downtown Chicago, the crowd threw tickertape and kisses at the veterans and waved banners with such mottos as ‘Honor the Warrior, not the War,'” the Times’ reported.

The commitment to separate judgment on the war itself from the troops who served in it was also part of a panel discussion at the commemoration events among several veterans who served as junior officers in Vietnam and went on to high command positions.

Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who served on the destroyer Collett that provided shore bombardment in Vietnam, said of the military that “we were not a highly respected institution” coming out of Vietnam.

One of the lessons learned should have been that higher-ups have to give troops a better sense of “mission clarity,” or explain what the war is about, in future conflicts, said Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2007 to 2011 managing wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the panel discussion, and in a separate interview with Military.com, retired Army Gen. Dennis Reimer, who served two tours in Vietnam, said that during the war “the relationship between the military and the civilian world was not good at all,” resulting in instances where troops would be told not to wear their uniforms off base for fear of becoming targets for harassment.

Until 1973, when the military became all-volunteer, the Vietnam War was fought with a draft army, and “the nation didn’t know how to run a draft,” said Reimer, who served as Army chief of staff from 1995 to 1999.

“I think it was just the way the system was run,” Reimer said, and “we didn’t give them the training they needed” to succeed in Vietnam.

Through the three days of the commemoration, the veterans who attended and the officials who addressed them all paid tribute to the sacrifices of the families of those who served and have kept up pressure on the government to this day to deliver a full accounting of those listed as missing.

In an interview at the exhibition tent of the Vietnam Veterans of America and in a phone follow-up, Gold Star daughter Colleen Shine recounted the experience of the three brothers in her family from Pleasantville, New York, who went to serve in Vietnam.

There was her father, Anthony C. Shine, the oldest of the three brothers, and then there was Uncle Al (Alexander) and Uncle Jon (Jonathan). Alexander Shine, who retired as a colonel from the Army, was seriously wounded in Vietnam action and was awarded the Silver Star.

Army 1st Lt. Jonathan Shine, a West Point graduate, was killed in action at Cu Chi in Vietnam in 1970 and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Then-Air Force Capt. Anthony Shine, who was serving with the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Vietnam, escorted his brother’s remains home for burial at West Point and then returned to his squadron.

In December 1972, only a month before the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords leading to the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in March 1973, Shine’s A-7D Corsair II went missing on a mission over Laos, and search-and- rescue efforts failed to find a crash site. For more than 20 years, he was listed as missing in action and was promoted during that period to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Colleen Shine said she was eight years old when her father’s plane went missing while she was still coping with what had happened to Uncle Al and Uncle Jon. She would later become public affairs director for the National League of POW/MIA Families and now is an adviser to the board of Sons and Daughters In Touch, an organization of the children of U.S. service members who were killed in Vietnam or are among the more than 1,500 still listed as missing.

In 1995, she went to the site where U.S. military officials suspected her father’s plane may have gone down. Villagers turned over a helmet with her father’s signature written on the inside, and parts of his plane were also scattered in the area.

“That gave me the ammunition” to press the U.S. government for a thorough excavation of the site, Shine said in an interview with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

In January 1995, the Vietnamese government repatriated a set of remains that were identified in August 1996 as those of Shine, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Colleen Shine placed the POW/MIA bracelet with her father’s name inscribed on it in the casket before he was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in October 1996.

She said her goal now is “to share the voices of the Gold Star families and to be able to help the next generation of families” whose sons and daughters are called upon to go to war.

Editor’s Note: Richard Sisk served with the Marines in Vietnam in 1967-68.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at [email protected].

Related: 40 Years Later, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Stands as Lasting Statement on War and Remembrance

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