WASHINGTON -- Despite a controversial war and painful homecomings, Vietnam War veterans not only persevered, they succeeded in ensuring that today’s veterans get respect and gratitude from their nation, President Obama said Monday.
“Because our Vietnam veterans led the charge, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is helping hundreds of thousands of today’s veterans go to college and pursue their dreams,” Obama said. “Because you didn’t let us forget – at our airports, our returning troops get off the airplane and you are there to shake their hands.”
Obama spoke for nearly 30 minutes at a Memorial Day observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The venue was selected to mark 50 years since America began full-scale combat operations in Vietnam.
Though the U.S. provided military aid to South Vietnam during the 1950s and major escalation of the war commenced about the mid-1960s, it was in January 1962 that U.S. combat helicopters for the first time ferried South Vietnamese troops into combat against an enemy stronghold near Saigon.
“Fifty years later, we come to this wall -- to this sacred place -- to remember,” Obama said. “Today is Memorial Day, when we recall all those who gave everything in the darkness of war so we could stand here in the glory of spring. And today begins the 50th commemoration of our war in Vietnam. We honor each of those names etched in stone -- 58,282 American patriots.”
Like the Vietnam War itself, the memorial wall in Washington was not without controversy. When the design was released more than 30 years ago, some were quick to disparage it. It was dark -- it looked like a black gash in the earth. Some considered it one more insult to Vietnam veterans.
But when the wall went up the criticism all but vanished as visitors took in the reflecting panels carved with the names of their fallen fathers, brothers, sisters and buddies.
Former Army Lt. Edward Marolda of Quantico, Va., who served in Vietnam with the 538th Transpiration Company, said the Vietnam wall helped the nation heal after Vietnam, regardless of what people thought while the war was underway.
“This wall really has helped bring all that together,” he told Military.com.
Obama addressed some of that division Monday in his remarks, noting that Vietnam was “one of the most painful chapters in our history.”
“Most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there,” he said. “You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised.”
No matter how people feel about a war, Obama said, patriotism should not be used “as a political sword.”
“Patriots can support a war. Patriots can oppose a war. And whatever our view let us always stand united in support of our troops, who we placed in harm's way,” he said.
Retired Navy Capt. Charles “Todd” Creekman of Fairfax, Va., who was a lieutenant junior grade when he floated off Vietnam some two generations ago, said the anniversary commemoration at the Vietnam wall is “good timing.”
“Going to the World War II dedication, you saw a big thank you to the World War II vets, but many of them couldn’t be there – many had died, and many couldn’t make it because they’re so old,” he said. “Our generation is certainly aging, but you’ll see many vets will still be able to appreciate these efforts now.”
“This is a long time coming,” said former Army Sgt. Manuel “Sonny” Silva. Silva, decked out at the observance in the 1st Cavalry Division’s cavalry hat, served with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry in 1969.
“I think from this point forward you’re going to see a lot more Vietnam-related ceremonies” across the country, he said. Connecticut just held an official welcome home celebration for Vietnam vets, he said, as did North Carolina. Silva is hoping to press his state, New Jersey, into following suit.
Read President Obama’s Memorial Day op-ed here.