The similarities between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam, the war that my own father fought and died in, have been the topic of much debate. Everyone it seems has an opinion about it, from the local news anchor to the barrista at the local coffee shop.
They claim both wars were poorly conceived and poorly executed. Both misguided and hastily entered into. My friend and fellow compatriot military correspondent Joe Galloway says the parallels between Vietnam and the war in Iraq didn’t begin overseas, but in DC. Never one to mince words, Galloway doesn’t shy away from putting blame where he thinks it’s most deserving.
“It took Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon nearly a decade to fail in Vietnam,” Galloway said. “Cheney and Rumsfeld could do it in Iraq in a year.”
I suppose the wrangling over these wars and others to follow will continue long after you and I give up the ghosts of our nightmares past.
At least I hope they do, because for me FREEDOM means living in a country where wars should always be a matter of fierce debate, not a matter of accepted fate. But it’s not the similarities between these wars that I want you to consider today. Rather it’s some of their differences that I bring you:
– Today’s troops eat better. They don’t have to raid the chicken house in hopes of having a hot boiled egg. Their meals are often catered by American contractors. Although to be fair, the Vietnam veteran did have a better choice of drink – warm Tiger beer instead of blue Gatorade.
– Unless he was a career soldier, the Vietnam soldier did not have to serve more than one tour. He could volunteer for more, and many did.
– During Vietnam, exceptions to military service were rare. Today only one-half of one percent of today’s population serves in uniform. They carry the burden of freedom for the rest of us, over and over again, on multiple tours to the front lines. Many of those troops serving and dying are women.
– An average 66,800 causalities were carried off the battlefield of Vietnam during the peak years between 1966 and 1969. The average for Iraq during it’s peak between 2004 to 2008 was 6,500. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it’s due in part to the small percentage of people caring the burden for the rest of us.
– During the Vietnam war military widows and their families were given 30 days to vacate military housing following the death of a loved one. Today they are allotted a year.
– The death benefit for families during Vietnam was $10,000. It had remained unchanged since World War II. Today Gold Star families receive up to half-a-million dollars, as long as their loved ones pay for and plan for that option.
These changes are a direct result of the advocacy work of Vietnam Veterans and their families and military organizations like VVA, DAV, American Legion, VFW, Gold Star Wives, Gold Star Moms and many others.
There’s one final difference. When my father died in 1966, I was 9 years old. I was in college by the time that war ended. From the time he died until I was in my late 30s I did not talk about my father or how he died. I felt a shame I could not explain. As if I had done something very bad that had caused his death.
Throughout my growing up years, Vietnam veterans were vilified for doing what America’s policymakers had called them, alas, commanded them to do – serve their country. Vietnam veterans were treated with disdain, and their families were treated even worse. Right here in Oregon, war widows were threatened by so-called peace activists.
As a child I didn’t understand that the people burning effigies of soldiers weren’t necessarily mad at my father. As a child I couldn’t make the distinction between the soldier who served and the unpopular war he served in. And neither could most of our citizenry. We weren’t only at war in Vietnam, we were at war with ourselves.
It took me buckets of tears and hours of prayer to sort this all out but I’ve finally come to a peaceful place. A place where I proudly speak the name of my father – Staff Sgt. David P. Spears – and of the life he gave for his family and his country.
Contrast that to my friend Destre Livuadais. Destre’s father, Staff Sgt. Nino Livaudais, was killed in Iraq. Destre and his brothers Carson and Grant spend a week during the summers with my husband Tim and I. We go hiking. We make trips to the Hermiston’s library and pool. We watch the pelicans feed at McNary Dam. Sometimes at night, after I’ve read Destre and his brothers a bedtime story and said a prayer with them, my heart aches so badly I find it difficult to breath. I see in Destre the child that I was, the child who misses the father who loved her.
Destre was 5 and living in Alabama when his daddy died. He’s 11 now and lives in Salt Lake City. During his last visit to our home I asked Destre if he tells the other kids about how his father died.
“No,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it hurts to talk about my dad,” he said.
“I understand that.”
“And there’s one more reason.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Because the other kids think it’s cool when a soldier dies in war. I know it’s not. I know it hurts.”
If Destre’s right. If kids think it’s cool to die in war, how then do we differ from the jihadists?
A Vietnam veteran friend recently shared these words with me. They were penned by his son, who has been serving on the front lines in Iraq:
Looking through the eyes of those before my generation, I see strength. Combat medic, supply, infantry, or whatever you may have done. You have seen the horrors of war. Families awakened in the middle of the night, houses blown into particles, kids running through the street because their family has just been killed, your friend dying in your arms. When I look at myself, I know that my eyes have not seen the worst. Only a glimpse of what happened to you. So as I lay in bed at night, why do I have nightmares?
As a nation we have learned some hard lessons. Because of the promise you made to your fallen comrades, to never forget, today’s soldier is given a warm send-off and a hero’s welcome home. Just as it should be. Just as it should have been when you and my father served.
But as Vietnam veterans and their families, our mission will never be complete until we help this nation understand that for children like Destre and men like this young soldier serving now the pain of war continues long after the bombing stops.
Thank you for your faithful service to this country – then and now.
Welcome Home, friend. Welcome Home.
Copyright by Karen Spears Zacharias.2009.
Vietnam Memorial, Portland, Oregon
With Roger Fuchs and his beautiful family. That FNG pin stands for FINE NICE GIRL, the vets tell me.
That’s the 25th Infantry standing guard.
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