Honoring Vietnam veterans

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is the fourth of July. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Today many Americans are celebrating our country’s birthday. It’s a holiday that also reminds us of the high cost of maintaining national independence and security.

MARY REICHARD: Nearly 3 million Americans fought in the Vietnam War, but sadly, many weren’t recognized for their service when they came home. Fifty years later, some politicians and veterans’ groups are attempting to correct that wrong.

WORLD Radio correspondent Kim Henderson wanted to find out how Vietnam veterans feel about these belated efforts. Here’s her report.  

MUSIC: There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there  . . .

KH: I grew up in the shadow of a cousin who went missing in Vietnam.

At family gatherings, relatives spoke his name in whispers. A reverential hush followed every mention of his special ops service. But when he smiled at me from faded photographs, I turned away.

These days my cousin’s image looms large on muraled walls down at the local VFW. All his immediate family members have died. My parents alone are left to field the calls that come from places like North Dakota and Rhode Island. People want to know what happened to Captain Dan Entrican. They know him because his name is inscribed on MIA bracelets they kept from the ‘70s.

MUSIC: Better run through the jungle, better run through the jungle, better run through the jungle. Boy, don’t look back.

Truth is, we may never know what happened to my Green Beret cousin. But I recently learned more about what happened to others like him who fought in Vietnam. But came back.

AUDIO: Today begins the 50th commemoration of our war in Vietnam . . .

In 2012, President Obama called for a 13-year national remembrance. That’s the length of time the U.S. spent building a major combat presence in Vietnam.  

AUDIO: One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam. Most particularly how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor . . .

Members of Mississippi’s VFW Post 2618 planned an event as part of the commemoration. They issued a clarion call for Vietnam vets. More than 30 came—wearing helmets and riding Harley trikes, grasping walking canes, and rolling in wheelchairs.

On cue, they came through the door, one by one.

AUDIO: Ovation

Some hung their heads in response to the standing ovation. Others smiled and waved. Feted with grilled burgers and cherry cheesecake, the vets received what Post Commander Greg Marlow described as a long-overdue welcome home.

AUDIO: I don’t think we can make up for the wrong that was done back when I was little . . . This is a little way of just trying to come back and say, “Hey, thank you for what you did and welcome home.”

Marlow couldn’t help but compare his own military homecoming to what Vietnam vets experienced.

AUDIO: When I came home from Desert Storm, it was completely different. I can remember riding in on the bus in Ft. Hood, Texas, and just seeing all these family members linings the streets, waving flags, and uh [he gets emotional here] . . . but it was good. . . The public perception was just totally different. We didn’t have people out protesting the war. We had America behind us.

67-year-old Robert Wallace was a brand-new Marine when he first went to Vietnam. Today, colorful tattoos stretch the length of both of his arms and encircle his neck. His white beard dips to his chest.

AUDIO: I was 18 when I went in country . . . I seen some things that a young man shouldn’t see. And, uh, I deal with them still today. But I’m fighting to be alright.

Things were bad for Wallace stateside, too.  

AUDIO: When I came home, I had garbage thrown at me and spit on me. Called me a, you know, baby killer, uh. A neighbor girl that I went to school with her family – she leaned down off her horse and spit on me. And that day I went home and burned all my uniforms, because I never wanted anybody to know that I was in Vietnam.

He says the national commemoration efforts, though well-intentioned, can’t heal his hurts.   

AUDIO: I’ve been to umpteen events, and I know people try. . . It’s like 48 years too late. . . I have to say, though, that the young men of Desert Storm or Desert Shield – when they came back to the country, they had a big parade for them down in Washington, and they stopped their tanks, and they stopped their trucks and made us get on with them . . . That meant a lot there.

Still, people do try. The crowd here was a mix. Eight politicians, including two congressional hopefuls. A band of brothers from World War II. A preschooler on the back row watching a Pixar flick on her grandmother’s phone. Even Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis was present, looking down at us from a framed photo as we repeated the Pledge.

AUDIO: Pledge

Jack Rutland chronicles oral military histories for radio station 102.1.

AUDIO: I have one dear friend who’s as good a man as you’d ever want to meet… He was in the 101st Airborne and he can’t hardly talk about Vietnam without getting emotional, tears in his eyes, and finally he’ll just start shaking his head and say, “I can’t talk. I can’t talk, Jack. I’m sorry. I can’t talk about it.”

Rutland sees similarities between Vietnam and today’s war against terrorism.

AUDIO: It’s not like fighting as my dad did in World War II. You don’t have good guys and bad guys and they fight each other. Now it’s terrorism, and in Vietnam it was people that looked like civilians, and all of a sudden you walk by them and they shot you . . .

Lee Perry, a past VFW state commander, stood at the podium and addressed those he called his “brothers in blood.”

AUDIO: I was in the Air Force. I was there at Tan Son Nhut, for the most part . . . We are the ones they are attacking because we had the airplanes. We was the ones dropping bombs and doing stuff.

Perry said his options weren’t good in 1962—Canada or jail.  He was surprised by sentiment he faced upon his return to the U.S.

AUDIO: We was unaware, uh, most of us, about the demonstrations and the people there at Travis Air Force Base . . . but they said, “Look, the buses got held up.” And I noticed they had screen wire on the windows. That was kind of funny. We were used to that in Vietnam because they would toss grenades in the windows . . .

Later, I asked Perry if events like this really benefit vets.

AUDIO: Yeah, of course. It relaxes the mind and the brain to show that people do care, even after 50 years or 60 years . . . In your mind you see people like you and you can talk to them and understand them. If you haven’t been to Vietnam, you don’t know. Or any combat . . . We’re doing Vietnam now, but any combat era. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson.

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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