Editorial: To Vietnam vets: welcome home, finally
No conflict since the Civil War divided the nation as much as the long, slow war in Vietnam, a war that saw more than 2.5 million Americans serve and cost 58,202 soldiers their lives. Political turmoil at home meant that there were no ticker-tape parades for returning veterans. Instead, despite their sacrifice, they were sometimes treated with scorn.
It took Congress nearly 40 years to decide to honor Vietnam War veterans with a “Welcome Home” day of their own and help the nation assuage its guilt for their shabby treatment. In 2009 it declared March 30, the day in 1973 when the last troops left Vietnam, as a national day to honor those who served in that divisive war. Thirteen months after that day in 1973, in an image burned into the minds of a generation, a helicopter plucked panicked CIA personnel and South Vietnamese allies from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, which had just fallen to North Vietnam.
Last year, the Legislature decided that New Hampshire should join the list of states that formally recognize the March 30 celebration. The state will hold its first official “Welcome Home” for Vietnam War veterans tomorrow afternoon in a National Guard hangar at Concord’s airport.
Initially, in a decision Concord Vietnam War veteran Jim Constantin described as “kind of like morbid,” the ceremony was scheduled to be held in the State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. The move to an airport hangar is an improvement, but it’s still not what the state’s Vietnam War veterans deserve. The celebration should, as Constantin said in a letter to the Monitor, be held on Main Street or at the State House. We hope the event’s organizers do so next year.
The federal resolution, like the state law, calls for the day to be recognized annually. That was probably a mistake. The veterans of the Vietnam War are now senior citizens. In time Welcome Home Day will devolve, like Presidents Day and many other holidays, into a token celebration. The nation hasn’t, until now, allocated each war its own holiday. That’s what Veterans Day is for: a day for honoring all veterans of all eras of who served and sacrificed for their country.
That said, the national memory of its shameful treatment of Vietnam War veterans would benefit from the balm of several years of Welcome Home days – but starting next year, those should be more than a gathering in an out-of-the way place attended by relatively few. Next year, Welcome Home Day for Vietnam War veterans should be an opportunity to benefit from living history, one that gives veterans the opportunity to share their experiences.
The day should be used to hold what were called “teach-ins” during the war to help put the conflict in its proper historical context. Vietnam War documentaries and movies should be shown and, yes, there should be music, for that war was fought not to the sound of fifes and drums or marching bands but to the beat of rock and roll.
Young people need to know that and everything else, good and bad, about that long and tragic war. And all of us need to give thanks to those who fought it.