Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the last Vietnam veteran in the Senate, recalled this week joining with other Vietnam veterans in Congress back in the 1990s to press for normalizing relations with their former enemies in Hanoi.
During his time in the House of Representatives prior to his election to the Senate, Carper led a congressional delegation with the endorsement of then-President George H.W. Bush on a 1991 mission to Vietnam to explore whether the Vietnamese would share more information on Americans missing in action in exchange for opening a path to restoring relations.
In a phone interview Thursday with Military.com, Carper said that economic reformer Do Muoi, the general secretary of the Communist Party, held a surprise meeting with the delegation on the last day of their 10-day visit to end the mission on a positive note.
The Carper delegation meetings were seen as setting the stage for further efforts at normalization led by two other Senate Vietnam veterans -- the late John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) -- that brought about the restoration in 1995 of relations between the U.S. and Hanoi and the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.
Carper said that the 1991 meetings in Vietnam came less than a month after he retired from the Navy Reserve as a captain after a career as a naval flight officer flying missions on the P-3 Orion surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. From 1968 to 1973, he served three tours in Southeast Asia, flying aboard the P-3 on missions over Vietnam from bases in Thailand and Japan.
Vietnam veterans in Congress brought a different perspective to military and veterans issues than their predecessors from World War II and Korea as a result of how they were treated when they came home, Carper said.
"Coming back from Vietnam, we didn't get a warm welcome," Carper said
He and other Vietnam veterans pushed to help Americans distinguish between how they may feel about U.S. engagement in a war and the troops sent to fight it. "So, there's been a big change from how it was during Vietnam and now," Carper said, and the change has been for the better.
In May, Carper announced that he'd be retiring from the Senate, effective in January 2025, after 14 successful campaigns in Delaware for statewide office -- from state treasurer, to governor, the House and then the Senate.
His retirement will leave the Senate without a Vietnam veteran. On the House side, there are three remaining Vietnam veterans -- Reps. Jim Baird, R-Ind.; Mike Thompson, D-Calif.; and Jack Bergman, R-Mich.
To dispel rumors that he might be retiring, Baird, a former Army lieutenant who lost his left arm in a convoy ambush in Vietnam, put out a press release in October stating, "I will continue to fight with my conservative colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives for life, liberty and opportunity for every Hoosier I represent."
But the retirement of Carper comes amid an overall decline in the number of veterans in elective office, both nationally and in state offices, reflecting an overall drop in the number of veterans in the general population.
In 1980, about 18% of U.S. adults were veterans, but by 2022, the percentage of adult Americans who had served in the military had fallen to 6%, according to a Nov. 8 Pew Research Center survey and data from the Census Bureau.
The Pew survey of the current 118th Congress showed that 18% of representatives and 17% of senators are veterans, down sharply from 1975 when 81% of senators were veterans and from 1967 when 75% of House members were veterans.
The falloff in the number of veterans in elective office also is reflected on the state level, according to a Nov. 8 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
At least 748 veterans were serving in state legislatures, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, the survey said, representing about 10% of the 7,575 state and territorial legislators nationwide.
The 748 veterans at the state level after the 2022 elections were a decline of 163 from the 911 veterans who were serving in the legislatures of 50 states and five U.S. territories after the 2020 election cycle, the survey showed.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.