50 years after the Vietnam War ended, its veterans deserve our gratitude | Opinion

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Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on March 29.

It is estimated by our Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., that 10% of all Americans served over the duration of that war, with 49,000 Tennesseans answering the call to serve.

American flags are seen at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, Sept. 16, 2022. March 29 marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
American flags are seen at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, Sept. 16, 2022. March 29 marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

Those who were returning from tours of combat duty and those who served stateside were vilified by protesters and draft dodgers who fled to Canada. In a word, it was ugly for those who served when they arrived home.

Our objective in Vietnam was to stop the spread of communism. It began with "advisers" as early as 1955 under President Dwight Eisenhower. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon each escalated the war, which finally ended under President Gerald Ford in 1975.

The cost of the war in Vietnam was staggering. Our Department of Defense reports 2,000 U. S. military personnel were taken prisoner. Almost all of those prisoners were pilots, navigators, weapons systems operators and aircrew who were shot down. Tortured in captivity, many died. Others were freed and returned home to an America that didn’t seem to care.

During the war, 58,220 of America’s best and brightest died fighting to prevent the spread of communism and for the freedom of South Vietnamese citizens they did not know.

Tennesseans lived up to our Volunteer State motto with 1,295 of our young soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen dying in the jungles of Vietnam or in hospitals overseas or here at home. Fighting in Laos and Cambodia also added to our death toll.

Many of our servicemembers also were wounded in the war. It is estimated that more than 350,000 military personnel received the Purple Heart, given to those who are wounded or killed while fighting in the nation’s wars, during the Vietnam War. By contrast, just more than 36,0000 Purple Hearts were awarded to valiant Iraq War servicemembers.

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Many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some haven’t fully recovered to this day. Ground forces were drenched by a defoliant now well known as Agent Orange. Developed to defoliate the jungle, it would cause lifelong health problems for those it was dumped on by our own aircraft. Only in recent years have veterans been receiving care for that exposure.

Tom Freeman
Tom Freeman

During the Reagan administration a national memorial was designed, built and dedicated on our National Mall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as a lasting monument to all who served, with the names of more than 58,000 of our fellow Americans who gave their lives in the war inscribed on its black granite walls. It’s a both gathering place for those who lost loved ones and a place of reflection.

Towns, cities, counties and states also built memorials to those who served and those who gave their full measure of devotion. Tennessee has its share of these memorials too.

Today, America commemorates those who served during the Vietnam War. Those who answered the draft or those who enlisted voluntarily are thanked again. We remember the loved and the lost. We remember the families that lost loved ones far too soon.

Tennesseans and the nation have another opportunity to thank our Vietnam War veterans. If you never thanked one, please do. It is reported we are seeing 500 of them die each and every day. Perhaps you’ll remember those lost or struggling to readjust in your thoughts and prayers.

These brave men and women who served did not start the war; elected officials did. These men and women simply did their duty. They are the embodiment of those hallowed words: "Duty, Honor, Country."

Thomas Salas Freeman is a veteran of the Air Force, National Guard and State Guard. He resides in Williamson County and is cofounder of Honor Our Veterans, a privately-funded military and veterans advocacy organization.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Opinion: 50 years after Vietnam War ended, veterans deserve gratitude