By Richard Pena
On March 29th of this year America will observe National Vietnam War Veterans Day which was added to our national holidays last year pursuant to The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017. It is good and right that America now recognizes the courage and sacrifices of the 3.1 million American soldiers that were sent to Vietnam by our government to a war that history now recognizes as a colossal mistake. PBS recently aired a 10 part, 18 hour look at the conflict by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick titled, “The Vietnam War. “This quicksand war was aptly described by President Lyndon Johnson when he said, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out.” It is important that we not only remember those that served in Vietnam, but also the lessons from that war. In fact, of all the mistakes made in Vietnam the gravest would be our failure to learn from these mistakes. Vietnam taught us that we should be ever vigilant not to send American soldiers halfway around the world to a foreign land, into a civil war, for a questionable cause and without an exit strategy. Regrettably, our policymakers did not learn the lessons of Vietnam when U.S. forces were sent to Iraq without clear understanding of the consequences.
It is important for policymakers and the public, especially the young, to understand that war is not a video game and wars have consequences. For example, over 58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam and countless others wounded, many severely. 3.1 million served, many coming back with PTSD or addictions. It is estimated that 1/3 of homeless are veterans and of those ½ are Vietnam Veterans. And then there are the families of these soldiers who also grieve and suffer. Earlier this month I was making a presentation before the Rotary Club of Dallas. A doctor came up afterwards and shared with me that his brother was a Vietnam Veteran who came back with severe PTSD. He would have nightmares at night, choke his wife and load a gun when he got angry. To this day he suffers from these symptoms and only now is he beginning to speak about his experiences. He cannot forget. Nor should America forget.
Many Vietnam Veterans say thank you for finally recognizing their service. Some others, myself included, want America to understand that we went to Vietnam because we felt we were, in some strange way, sacrificing for America. The America we sacrificed for begins with the Constitution and the first Amendment freedoms of speech, of the press, of the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Over 58,000 died in Vietnam for these freedoms. Many of us recognize that these freedoms are now in jeopardy. We have fought external enemies and now it is time to fight against those within our country who would tear down our institutions and subvert our democracy.
And to the policymakers Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Texas Observer, said it best: “For God’s sake, don’t get into stupid wars.”
Richard Pena left on the last day of American military involvement in Vietnam, is an Austin attorney, and the co-author of the book Last Plane Out of Saigon.