Opinion

How you can help honor our Vietnam veterans

WASHINGTON - The man who said his name was Danny arrived at my door with a huge floral box. Inside was one of the most beautiful bouquets I’d ever seen.

Danny was with the Maryland highway department, supervising a crew installing new curbs on my street. He was also a Vietnam veteran who had seen the small blue star in my window, indicating two family members were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Danny came from a generation that provided 9.2 million people who served in the military during the Vietnam era, many of whom came home from war reviled, not thanked for what they gave their country. Like most of his fellow veterans, Danny vowed to show only gratitude to those in military service, no matter what the politics of any current war that service members are called on to fight. Flowers to a stranger were to thank my family.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of 3,500 Marines in Da Nang, South Vietnam, beginning 10 years of a terrible conflict that would sear and scar this nation.

In the “lessons learned” department, perhaps the most important is to separate the warrior from the war. Today Americans of all political stripes express sincere appreciation for what the men and women of the armed forces are called on to do for their country, whether the mission is popular or not.

The Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in the nation’s capital, with its awesome Wall designed by Maya Lin, engraved with the names of 58,300 people who gave their lives in the jungles of Southeast Asia, was meant as one way toward healing a divided, bitter country.

It has worked. The three-acre memorial with its gardens, Wall, Vietnam Women’s Memorial and Three Soldiers statue, is visited by 4.5 million people a year. Its web site, with photos and information on veterans and messages from their friends and families, draws four million virtual visitors annually.

The veteran behind the memorial, Jan Scruggs, a man of enormous personality and drive who raised the $8 million needed to begin implementation of it, is retiring this year.

One way the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund plans to honor him and all the war’s veterans is to raise money for a $116 million underground education center to display some of the 400,000 personal items left at the Wall by visitors, a unique occurrence which stunned the memorial’s founders.

From teddy bears to tear-stained letters, the items, stored in boxes maintained by the National Park Service which owns the memorial, tell powerful stories.

Approved by Congress with no funding, the education center needs donations from the public if it is to be ready for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2020. Most of all, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund wants future generations to learn about the Vietnam era, how decisions were made and what they meant to the nation.

Tomorrow’s fifth-graders must learn they owe a debt to those who came before them and that they, too, must leave a legacy of service, however best they are able. Technology will give them access to such things as digital oral histories from veterans and TV footage of the first war played out in the nation’s living rooms.

The goal of conveying to visitors the importance of community service and volunteerism seems particularly meaningful because the Vietnam War resulted in an end to the military draft.

There are 7 million living Vietnam War veterans. Beyond those who died or went missing there (their names are read aloud every five years), Vietnam veterans are still dying of injuries sustained in the war, such as exposure to Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress. The fund’s CEO, Jim Knotts, a Desert Storm veteran, stresses these veterans must be honored as well as the service of all military personnel and that good health care for all veterans must be a national priority.

Because of space restrictions, the education center will be the last major memorial built on the National Mall. Fifty years after the start of the Vietnam War, it is time to take the next step in honoring those who fought it, whether they wanted to or not.

Here’s to you, Danny, and all those like you.

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may send her email at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.

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