Fifty years ago this summer, a U.S. destroyer and four F-8 fighter jets exchanged fire with North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Shortly after, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the authority to go to war against North Vietnam, and it was not long before combat troops were dispatched. The rest, as they say, is history.
It proved a costly and politically unpopular war that eventually spurred mass protests and draft evasions and cost Johnson a second term. By the end, more than 58,000 Americans had been killed and 150,000 wounded with many suffering permanent disability. By one estimate, more than 800,000 of those who served in Vietnam came home with some form of post traumatic stress disorder.
The extraordinary sacrifice by the men and women who served in Vietnam deserves to be remembered this Veterans Day. Yet no one refers to them as the "Greatest Generation," the title bestowed upon those who served in World War II, nor were they shown the deference given veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The warm greetings, the welcome home school assemblies, the spontaneous acts of kindness and even the preferred airline seating that we take for granted today were not at all what Vietnam veterans received in the 1960s and '70s.
In more recent years, some steps have been taken to honor Vietnam veterans. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington has been helpful in this regard, as have a handful of organizations that have advocated for them. Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of The Three Servicemen Statue. Added two years after the memorial was completed, the bronze sculpture depicts veterans in a more heroic context, a tribute not only to those who died in the war but to those who came home.
But has it been enough? Almost certainly not. And as evidence of this shortfall in goodwill, we turn to Maryland Public Television, which for two years has been developing a documentary, "Maryland Vietnam War Stories," interviewing more than 60 Vietnam veterans from the Free State (so far) about the experience of serving and coming home.
What most often comes up in those conversations? Not the terror of conflict, not the fear of being drafted, not the disillusionment with American leadership or confusion about why the U.S. was fighting in the region at all. No, what sticks to veterans as they reach their retirement years are the hostile reactions they received on their return home. Ignored at best and condemned as "baby killers" and spat upon at worse, they still feel the sting of public rebuke.
MPT has wisely picked up on this, and the documentary, originally intended to correspond with a Ken Burns documentary on the war, will also offer an opportunity to celebrate veterans publicly. On June 11 and 12, 2016, MPT will host LZ Pimlico, or Landing Zone Pimlico, at Pimlico Race Course with entertainment and tributes including rows of 1,015 white chairs to represent Marylanders killed or missing in action in Vietnam. With a budget of $2.5 million and with still two more years of work ahead, the overall project is now the most ambitious in the organization's history.
Yet we can't help thinking that more is needed, that popular culture has too often depicted Vietnam veterans in a misleading and inaccurate context and has too rarely offered thanks for their service. The opportunity to right this wrong is gradually slipping away as veterans grow older.
So perhaps as we honor veterans this week, a special toast or prayer or handshake might be extended to those who served in a war over which this nation has never fully healed. Whatever kindness is shown will not be enough, of course, but it is better than to allow to stand this lingering belief among Americans who served in this conflict that they are viewed as somehow unworthy of our appreciation and respect.
To set the record straight, these men and women are heroes as surely as any who have worn the uniform and perhaps more than many for the added indignities they have suffered since the war's end. That they served in a misguided, mismanaged and mistaken war was not their doing. They were called to serve, and they did. For that, we owe our gratitude.