By Ralph Negron
In 1979, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law directing the Governor to annually issue a proclamation setting apart March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day. The date commemorates the departure of the last U.S. combat troops from Vietnam in 1973.
Vietnam is the most misunderstood war the United States has ever fought. Over 40 years has transpired since the U.S. involvement there, yet it remains a baseline and constant reminder of flawed policy planning. Hollywood has also given the war a “pop art” sort of persona. Many Americans have a surreal vision of the era, imagining barefooted hippies throwing daisies at soldiers while singing refrains from the musical “Hair.” As the years pass, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate reality from illusion about Vietnam. The only constant is its unpopularity with the public.
By 1968, Vietnam became an unpopular war, as had those who fought in it. Many Americans formed a negative stereotype of Vietnam veterans. There were no parades or accolades. America took its frustration for the war on its veterans. Many servicemen and servicewomen saw America’s anger as soon as their first day back in the U.S. Buses transporting them from nearby Air Force Bases to local airports often required a police escort. Angry crowds ironically emblazoned with peace symbols greeted them waving offensive signs, chanting angry taunts, and occasionally tossing objects in anger. The protests grew in numbers, culminating in a whopping 500,000 protesters gathering in Washington D.C., in 1969. The service and dedication of the Vietnam veterans got lost in the shuffle.
Although illusive, the reality of Vietnam is locked in the heart of every Vietnam veteran as well as the relatives and friends who lost someone very special on the other side of the world. The Vietnam Memorial offers a blunt reminder of their service. It contains the name of every serviceman and servicewoman killed in Vietnam etched in chronological order from the first to the last. It is a fascinating microcosm of America, giving us tremendous insight about the War as well as the Americans who fought there.
- The names of 58,220 servicemen and servicewomen killed in Vietnam are etched on the walls of the Vietnam Memorial. Since its construction, 88 names have been added to accommodate those who died of their wounds.
- The list includes 86% Caucasians and 12.5% African Americans, which is fairly consistent with the racial composition of the American population at that time.
- Almost 30% of the names are Catholics and 30% non-denominational Protestants. The others reflect a myriad of other religions, including 12 Muslims. There were 16 chaplains killed in action, two of which received the Medal of Honor.
- The average age is 23. The largest age group is 18. Although the law excludes anyone younger than 18 from combat zones, the names include 12 soldiers who died at the age of 17, 5 which were 16, and a Marine who was only 15. The oldest was 63.
- There are 8 women on the memorial – 7 Army nurses and 1 Air Force nurse.
- There are 31 sets of brothers who were all killed within months of each other, as well as 3 sets of father and sons.
- There are 153 Medal of Honor recipients listed out of the 244 total who were awarded the medal during the Vietnam War.
- Regular military members listed constitute 59% of the names, followed by draftees with 30% of the total. Others were National Guard and Reserves on active duty.
- Massachusetts had 1331 citizens killed in Vietnam, which represents 2% of the names. West Virginia had the highest casualty rate per capita followed closely by Oklahoma.
- The first name on the wall is an Air Force Tech Sergeant killed in action working with American advisors in 1956. The last name is an 18 year old Marine killed 2 weeks after the fall of Saigon on an operation to retrieve the merchant ship Mayaguez.
- Morenci, Arizona is a small copper mining town. Diminutive in size, the town nonetheless produced some of the best football and basketball HS teams in the state. A band of 9 seniors from Morenci (5 Caucasian, 3 Hispanic, 1 Navajo) enlisted in the Marines in solidarity on the Fourth of July in 1966. They went to boot camp together, trained together, and then shipped to Vietnam together. Only 3 returned home. Imagine the devastation felt by that small community.
Each of the 58,220 names on the wall has its own personal human story. The wall is a stark reminder that there is no glory in war.
A retired army veteran who had fought in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam described these wars to me in graphic but insightful terms that illustrate the problem faced by returning Vietnam veterans. He told me that when he returned from Europe, the drinks were always on the house. When he returned from Korea he had to buy his own drinks. And when he returned from Vietnam, the bar no longer welcomed him.
Ralph Negron’s opinion piece also appeared in the Cape Cod Times on March 23, 2017.