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Heroes America Forgot
Memorial Day 2001
by Kirsten Andersen
weekend was a holiday weekend for most Americans. Many of
us dusted off the gas grill and kicked off the summer season
with an unholy feast of fattening, greasy, flavorful animal
meat. The braver among us were found at various beach
resorts, timidly exposing their pale, pasty winter flab for the
first time in nine long months. This writer spent her
weekend running errands and attending Church.
In all the festive celebration of a paid day off from work, it has been yearly said and bears repeating that most of us never stop to remember why we didn't have to go today. Some do remember--Harley-Davidson-riding activists tied up traffic all weekend in their annual ritual ride around Washington, D.C. to remember those still missing in action in Vietnam. There were graveyard services from coast to coast on Sunday honoring the thousands of fallen soldiers who gave their lives to defend our freedom. And families of the fallen will gather today to remember and pray for the souls of their loved ones who were courageous enough to die for the cause we should all believe in--the United States of America.
That, of course, is what Memorial Day is about--men and women who gave their lives so that the freedom we take for granted could go on another day. Those men and women knew that true freedom could not be bought by economic sanctions, but by blood and sacrifice. In short, Memorial Day celebrates the fallen heroes of our nation.
Memorial Day celebrates our fallen heroes, but many more heroes survived our wars. They were the ones who had to send the goodbye letters to the mothers and widows of the dead. They were the ones who told the stories for the history books so that we would never forget. And they were the ones whom we ultimately did forget, at least in the case of those who fought in Vietnam and lived to tell about it.
In some ways, I think it would probably be better to have fought in Vietnam and died than to have fought and returned to America. The dead were at least given a wall in memoriam. It may be half-underground and black, but it is there, with names engraved for eternity. The living received no such honor.
A close family friend, whom I shall not name, is one of these returned heroes of the "Vietnam Conflict" (a patsy way of saying 'bloody terrible war'). He has requested that I conceal his name because he is ashamed. I cannot imagine being ashamed of heroism, but he, and many other heroes of the Vietnam War feel exactly that way.
Our friend spent the required one-year tour in Vietnam, from 1967-1968. He was awarded many medals for his bravery, including a silver star (for saving 3 wounded men from an ambush while injured himself), and two bronze stars. By the time he returned from his year in battle, he was a highly decorated soldier.
If you visit the home of any soldier who fought in World War I, or II, or even the Gulf War, you will probably find a wall covered in medals, certificates, and memorabilia from their brave accomplishments. It is not so with my friend, nor with many Vietnam veterans. There exists in America today an entire generation of real heroes with real medals that they are ashamed to display.
Why are they ashamed? Well, for starters, the very government that forced these men to leave their homes and families to fight a bloody battle on the other side of the world has never said 'thank you.' From the beginning, the Vietnam War was all about politics, and that didn't stop when the conflict ended. The men who risked their lives in battle may not have known why they were fighting, but they knew their country had called them to fight, and they did so with everything they had.
When World War II ended, there was dancing in the streets. Beautiful young women threw themselves at sailors as they returned home, kissing them passionately, and leaders all over the world praised the efforts of the brave young men. When the Gulf War ended, there was a parade or two (or ten), and the President declared the soldiers heroes in front of hundreds of television cameras and by extension, the whole nation. When the Vietnam War ended, the politicians were silent (we lost, after all), and the soldiers were literally spat on by the citizens they had spent eight years trying to defend. To this day, the veterans of the Vietnam War have received no formal thanks for their achievements. In fact, when President Ronald Reagan attempted to arrange some sort of 'thank you' on behalf of the American people, saying, "Theirs was a noble cause," he was roundly derided for it.
We have had some reminders in the past few months of just how wrong this situation is. There was Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry's public shame for his actions in Vietnam. It turns out that a few of the people who died on the other side of a battle he fought were women and kids. Never mind that in those days, Vietnamese women and kids were typically holding hand grenades and guns--it's just not socially acceptable to harm the fairer sex and their offspring (is that sexist?). Senator Kerry and I may not agree politically, but he is a hero to me--or at least he was until he started apologizing for defending my freedom.
Then there was that incident off the coast of China. Some inept Chinese pilot knocked our EP-3 surveillance plane down over Chinese territory, and everyone on the American plane survived. They were captured by the Chinese government and held for several days in a hotel while politicians negotiated to bring them home. They finally did return home, to great fanfare and a hero's welcome (the plane remains in China).
I do not deny that the crew of the EP-3 did their job or even that they did it well, but these days, it seems that all one has to do is survive a rocky patch in their daily routine to be called a 'hero' in this country. Meanwhile, there are many true heroes in this country who haven't even heard the words, "Welcome home, and thanks for a job well done."
Memorial Day may be almost over, but Veterans' Day is just beyond the summertime. Live a little, though--do not wait for some holiday to thank an American hero. Almost all of us know someone who fought in Vietnam. Call him up today and say, "Thanks for protecting me, you did a great job." Chances are, they are words he has been waiting thirty years to hear.
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