GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- The Vietnam Memorial remembrance ceremony was restored Tuesday to its traditional place at the end of the city's official Memorial Day ceremonies.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk expanded the official Memorial Day parade to once again include the Vietnam Memorial outside Gloucester High School, which sent 11 of its own to Vietnam, to be lost in a war that the U.S. stumbled into 50 years ago.
The decision to extend the parade to the memorial reverses a decision to exclude the Vietnam Memorial ceremony from the official agenda, an initial decision that seemed to echo the fate of the returning veterans a half century ago. Over time in the 1960s and '70s, many Americans had come to see the war as a misconceived folly -- mistaking nationalism for communist aggression -- and took their anger out on the soldiers, sailors and airmen who returned, leaving the nation bitterly divided and somewhat permanently confused about the lessons and wisdom to be gleaned from what seemed, to many, a wasteful bloodbath.
Tuesday, Kirk issued an apology for initially displacing the Vietnam Memorial ceremony from the official agenda, and in an email said, "We will walk as one city from Kent Circle to the Vietnam Memorial to conclude the Memorial Day observances there."
The initial change had been outlined in recent days to perplexed and widespread opposition.
Many in the community said they could not understand the decision to essentially eliminate the Vietnam War ceremony from the official agenda for the Memorial Day -- especially in a year that marks the nation's decision 50 years ago to enter the war. The move had quickly brought bitterness and lingering pain, especially among the veterans who served and their relatives.
Kirk had said that the decision was based on a desire to produce a single unified memorial ceremony at the World War II Memorial off Stacy Boulevard.
However, in a letter Tuesday morning to Mark Nestor, the organizer of the Vietnam War Memorial ceremony, Kirk apologized "for not overcoming the logistical challenge of incorporating the Vietnam Memorial into the parade salute for this year. I should have caught this sooner, and we plan to do everything we can to properly honor the fallen sons of Gloucester."
Nestor, a local attorney and a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, said Tuesday, "I congratulate the mayor."
"She recognized the importance of the Vietnam Memorial," he said. "Now, (the ceremony) is inclusive. I thank the mayor for her graciousness. She saw there was an issue; that's all we wanted, we'll be glad to part of the city's ceremony. The important thing is honoring the 11 (Gloucester servicemen who were casualties of the war)."
Before Kirk's decision to extend the official parade to the Vietnam Memorial at the high school, the agenda called for beginning the parade at Harbor Loop, continuing through downtown and proceeding across Stacy Boulevard to the World War II Memorial for the unified service -- which would mark the end of the ceremonies. The new schedule announced Tuesday morning will extend the parade to continue from the go to the World War II Memorial, then onto the high school and the Vietnam Memorial -- as it has in the past.
Nestor and Disabled American Veterans Chapter 74 had planned to conduct the traditional ceremonies at the small memorial in an external corner of the high school campus following the completion of the official ceremonies.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam officially began in 1962, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, as the Americans replaced the exhausted and defeated French in their former colony, fighting -- so the White House, CIA and Pentagon believed -- to prevent communist influence from expanding through the little known country along the South China Sea.
That the war was more about repressed nationalism than communist aggression was seen clearly by such a large segment of the population that, by the late 1960s, America was in a defacto civil war at home, with much of the enormous baby boom generation of youths demanding the war's end, and the older defenders of the line of command and conventional thinking trying to hold them off.
The war was also peopled in part by draftees, a system many saw as corrupted by rules and exceptions that assured the vast majority of draftees were poor and black. That development fueled a fusion of the Civil Rights movement with anti-war sentiment, and seemed to push the nation off any clear historical trajectory.
Vietnam cost America some of its soul along with 58,156 dead, 2,338 missing in action, 303,704 wounded in action from the 2,594,000 who served in Vietnam from the armed forces of the United States.
The last U.S. troops, along with the last diplomats, left in 1973, but the war there carried on until Vietnam was unified under a nationalist and communist government based in the north.
Veterans of the war continued to fight personal battles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and for their own social and self-respect -- struggles that continue to this day.
One of the reasons Nestor gave for wanting to keep the Vietnam Memorial as a part of the official agenda was that the number of Vietnam veterans "who have been reuniting with the fellow comrades after many years" has been increasing at recent Memorial Day ceremonies, he said.