50 years after end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, veterans reflect on life, losses

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

America’s military involvement in the Vietnam War ended 50 years ago this year, but the legacy of and respect for those who served continues to grow.

Some made the ultimate sacrifice. More than 58,000 men and women lost their lives during the conflict before the U.S. military withdrew from it in 1973. This includes 385 from our nine-county region whose names will be listed in a special Memorial Day section in this newspaper.

Others returned home to a nation torn by feelings about the war that were sometimes misdirected toward those who served their country honorably. This story looks at their experiences, and the legacy of the Vietnam War 50 years later.

Michael Vanderveen, of Dayton, enlisted in the Marine Corps on his 18th birthday in February 1968 and arrived in Vietnam in June as an infantry rifleman with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He was wounded several times during his service, receiving two purple hearts, one for the injuries he sustained from stepping on a landmine in January 1969.

Vanderveen, who lost both his legs but retained both knees, went from a hospital in Da Nang, to a field hospital in Japan for nearly three weeks and the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for about two years.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

“While I was in the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, I became a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and I staunchly wanted the war to end,” he said. “I wanted our guys to come home and it took a while, but we got the job done.”

Vanderveen said young people today come up to him and thank him for his service and his sacrifice.

“But when a person in my age range comes up and says all that, I automatically think, ‘I wonder what you were doing in ‘69-’70, whether you were one of the people that was throwing (vegetables) and rocks at us and calling us every nasty name you could think of,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I am, a little bit.”

The fact that society has gone from shunning those who fought in that war to revering those who were killed in action and paying tribute to those who survived is “wonderful,” Vanderveen said.

“It’s one thing to protest the war, but don’t hate the warrior,” he said. “That was pretty much what I had to say in Philadelphia and on from that point.”

Vanderveen recalls the first time he was allowed home from Philadelphia in 1971. He was clad is his dress blues and, because he didn’t have his prosthetics yet, was wheeled by an airport employee through the concourse at Cox Municipal Airport. When the employee went into a shop to buy him some cigarettes, a soda and a candy bar, Vanderveen rolled up to a window to watch the planes taxi in and out.

“A lady in a mumu came up to me and she goes, ‘Were you in Vietnam?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am’ and she she spit right in the middle of my dress blues,” Vanderveen said. “And she was lucky that the red cap (airport employee) came out just in time to grab my shoulders because I was about to launch out of the wheelchair and I’d have probably gone to prison that day.

“Now, we are getting thanked for our service. We are getting honored in many ways.”

Vanderveen acknowledges that anti-war sentiments aimed at those who fought in Vietnam didn’t vanish with the end of that war.

“There’s still protest every conflict that we’re in, and that will probably never end until we stop getting in wars, but as far as my service goes, I am proud to have served,” he said.

He said he also is proud to be president of the Vietnams Veterans of America Chapter 97, a group that formed in 1985 and one that he officially joined in 2005. The organization, which has about 185 members, will be one of the groups on hand at 11 a.m. Monday morning at Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park for a Memorial Day ceremony.

For the past eight years, Vanderveen has dropped a wreath from the Stewart Street Bridge into the Great Miami River on Memorial Day after the ceremony at the park, which memorializes area residents from an eight-county region who lost their lives during the war, including several local Medal of Honor winners.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Learning from mistakes

Connie Wilson, of Springfield, whose father served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, including during the Vietnam War, said “being an Army soldier was the greatest honor of his life, as being an ‘Army brat’ was the greatest honor of mine.”

Wilson, who was born in 1964, said her father, Roy Wilson, fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars before leaving the Army in 1969 at 43 years old.

The family lived in Georgia when Wilson’s father was over in Vietnam and while Wilson’s mother did much of the worrying, Wilson herself “didn’t understand as much.”

“Before he went over there, he used to always talk about how wonderful our country was, how he loved what he was doing, how he loved our country, and so I just always knew that my dad, he was just doing great things for our country,” she said.

But Roy Wilson’s return to America saw “no recognition at all” from his fellow citizens, his daughter said.

“If there was any, it wasn’t good,” Wilson said. “For a long time, if anybody said anything to him, it wasn’t a good thing.”

As the years went by and people spotted her father wearing Army hats or T-shirts, their initially chilly reception turned warm.

“People would say ‘Thank you for your service,’” she said. “It was a big turnaround.”

Wilson’s father died in 2011 at 85 years old.

“If he was here, he would say the same things I did,” she said. “He would tell you that serving ... in the Army was an honor for him and he would encourage anyone to do that. It was a great career for him (and) ... it gave him a great life.”

Wilson also said that when her father returned from Vietnam, there weren’t the resources available that there are today.

“No one to put an arm around his shoulder and tell him that they would get him in with a psychologist or counselor or whatever,” she said, noting that her father suffered nightmares for more than a year following his return. “You just took care of it. Today, they have all of those things in place. And all of that is so very important. Hopefully, that means they’ve learned from their mistakes.”

Legacy today

The Vietnam War impacted more than the U.S. soldiers that returned to America, according to Paul Morrow, a visiting assistant professor in the University of Dayton Human Rights Center and postdoctoral fellow who worked on the center’s Vietnam Legacies Project

There were about 500,000 Vietnamese alone that came to the United States by 1995, along with other Southeast Asian immigrants. Those who came over already have grandchildren who were born here.

“Those people are, on the one hand, confronting anti-Asian hate in the U.S., and on the other hand, have a different perspective on the current government of Vietnam and some of the other current governments in Southeast Asia today,” Morrow said.

“Their grandchildren, like grandchildren from other ethnicities and races all across our country, are interested in their roots, but they don’t have the sort of lived memory of that experience of being a refugee, of flights, and so they’re interested in ‘Well, where do I come from?’ but they don’t really have a lot of prior associations with Vietnam today,” Morrow said.

The Vietnam War also led to “Vietnam Syndrome” in American policy.

“Through basically the first Gulf War with George H.W. Bush, there was a real hesitation to use U.S. military power in foreign conflicts,” he said. “Today, do we have a similar hesitation to use U.S. military force abroad? I think that the experience particularly of the end of the conflict in Afghanistan, probably for someone of Biden’s generation or some of our older political leaders, they think ‘That was another messy withdrawal from a conflict setting where we didn’t really achieve what we wanted’ so I would imagine they’ve got some Vietnam War flashbacks.

“At the same time, Biden’s stance on American assistance in Ukraine versus direct conflict with Russia is probably shaped by some of these same Cold War era thoughts.”

In 1973, when the U.S. officially exited the Vietnam War, which wouldn’t officially end until 1975, three-fourths of those in the U.S. Congress had some form of military service record, Morrow said. Today, with the current congress, that’s down to 18%, Morrow said.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

As for the American population as a whole, approximately 18% of the populace were veterans by 1980, he said. Today, that number is down to just 6.5%.

“There’s been a distancing of a big proportion of the U.S. population from military service, and that probably has driven a lot of polarization with political associations with military service,” Morrow said. “Today, three-fourths of the people in Congress who are veterans are in the Republican Party. You wouldn’t see that split back in 1980.”

Morrow said Kathleen Belew, author of “Bringing the War Home”, argues that the loss of faith in the actual elected political leaders who were running the war led to “a certain kind of backlash amongst veterans who consider themselves very patriotic, but thought that they had been basically betrayed by the political and military leadership at the time.”

Honoring veterans

Robert Black, of Oakwood, went to college and joined the Air Force as a second lieutenant through the ROTC program in 1960, serving as a navigator in Vietnam intermittently from 1966 to 1969.

When he made it back stateside, Black was stationed in Colorado and went to school to become a contracting officer. There, on occasion, he would encounter people giving him the peace sign, “but never received anything negative, just sort of like nothing, you know?”

Five decades after the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, acknowledgement of one’s service is not only more likely, but more common, he said.

“People seem actually, much friendlier ... than they did when I first came back in ‘69, the ones that acknowledge that you’re in the Air Force or served,” Black said.

This Memorial Day, like past years, he plans to paying tribute to all veterans, including those who fought and died in Vietnam and those who returned stateside and have died since then.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

“I think it’s important,” Black said. “Being in the Air Force, I had it a lot easier. I feel (those) who were in the Marines (and) in the Army, they really had it rough. I didn’t have it that rough and I could fly in and fly out and they were staying there. I have a lot of admiration for those people.”

Black said while he’s observing Memorial Day, he’ll be thinking of the crew of people he knew on board a Lockheed RC-121 who perished when the plane went down.

Vanderveen said the way the public views veterans coming back from wars has come a long way in the past 50 years.

“Guys coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, they were welcomed home in the proper manner,” he said. “Our motto with the Vietnam Veterans of America is never again will one group of veterans abandon another and we are steadfast in that. We make sure that the guys returning from other wars are welcomed home.”

Vanderveen said that when Beavercreek native Marine Corporal Larry Draughn returned from his second deployment to Afghanistan after losing both his legs to an IED there in May 2009, “just about everybody” in the VVA chapter was there at his new Fairborn house to greet him.

“The smile on his face said it all,” he said. “It was a wonderful thing to be involved with.”

The Dayton Daily News honors all the men and women who risked and sacrificed their lives in service to our country. This Memorial Day, 50 years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, we pay special tribute to the lives lost in that war. Pick up Monday’s newspaper for a list of names, branches of service and home towns and counties of the 385 servicemembers from our area listed as casualties of the Vietnam War by The National Archives.

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