WASHINGTON - They returned home to a politically traumatized nation that treated them with indifference and scorn.
Now, veterans’ advocates fear the country will again miss an opportunity to recognize the toil and torment of the 3 million service members sent to fight the Vietnam War. The Pentagon’s plans to celebrate the veterans - five years in the making - are sputtering.
This Memorial Day is supposed to be the curtain-raiser for a series of gatherings to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of US involvement in the decade-plus war and to honor those who served. Yet few events are planned and crucial corporate sponsorship is nonexistent. Most veterans have not even heard about the effort.
“It has to be some issue of leadership and motivation,’’ Phillip Jennings, a veteran Marine Corps captain who served in Southwest Asia and has written several books about the war, said of what he considers to be a flagging effort. “There is no real direction. There is no champion of it at the Pentagon or the White House.’’
Pentagon officials acknowledge the criticism but insist the commemoration events will, in the end, be numerous, appropriate, and timely. They point out that the events will be scheduled to coincide with key moments in the war 50 years after they occurred, giving them time to plan.
“I’m optimistic we will get it right,’’ retired Army Lieutenant General Claude “Mick’’ Kicklighter, who was appointed to oversee the effort last July, told Vietnam Magazine last month. “I believe that the country wants to do this right and will do it right.’’
Yet doing it right means raising money, and one Pentagon official said that has been a major stumbling block. The commemoration office has been given scant funds to organize, and officials have not designed a mechanism for corporations to contribute, according to the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Kicklighter’s office said he was unavailable for an interview, and officials would not say how much funding the Pentagon has designated.
The exact dates of American involvement have been disputed. The United States first sent military advisers in 1959; massive escalation came when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964. This year was chosen by the Pentagon to kick off the 50th commemoration because in 1962 the Pentagon first authorized a Vietnam service ribbon for troops sent to Southeast Asia. It was also the year President Kennedy increased military advisers from a few hundred to several thousand, to assist South Vietnamese forces fighting the North Vietnamese communists.
Another dispute is over the best ways to honor the veterans, many of whom are still suffering and dying from the effects of the war. And on this issue, the specter of the war and the political battles it spawned back home still haunt.
One group of veterans believes that the successes of the war were not appreciated and that the commemoration events should set the record straight. To them, the service members won the battles but the news media, antiwar protesters, and liberal politicians lost the war by undercutting their efforts.
“Now is the time to say we are sorry about that,’’ said retired Air Force Lieutenant General Robert E. Pursley in an interview from his home in Stamford, Conn. “The troops did the job they were given to do. All the rest of us back in this country failed on our end.’’
Pursley served as the military assistant to three secretaries of defense from 1966 to 1972.
Other veterans, including members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, insist the war was a military debacle, entered into falsely, conducted poorly, and ended much too late.
“I am afraid they are going to glorify the war,’’ said Stanley Karnow, a journalist and author who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II and covered the Vietnam War from 1959 to 1974. “You can call them heroes or victims. They are heroes and victims of a war we should have never waged.’’
Yet there is agreement even among the most vociferous antiwar voices and battle commanders of the 1960s: This is the time to put aside such worn political blame-games and honor those who served.
“I hope it can be done without recycling the old debates,’’ said Tom Hayden, a leader of the antiwar movement who now teaches and writes in Southern California.
Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark concurs. His 1966 class at West Point lost 30 officers in Vietnam and split over the war. The sacrifice of those who returned is still underappreciated, Clark said.
“I recall the looks on their faces, the sadness, the lingering feelings that there was a certain resentment,’’ Clark recalled of the troops who attended the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1982, when he was a lieutenant colonel. “In some faces there was some degree of alienation. But they still came. They believed. They were part of something larger than themselves and they gave to their country when their country asked them to do so.’’
Many are still suffering and their needs are not being fully met, said Senator Richard Burr, a Republican of North Carolina who recently sponsored legislation to create a “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.’’
“The Vietnam generation was cheated from the day their feet hit American soil,’’ said Burr.
It was only last year that the Department of Veterans Affairs approved disability benefits for a particular heart ailment affecting an estimated 200,000 Vietnam vets exposed to jungle defoliants.
Earlier this month, the names of four veterans who died recently were added to the memorial on the National Mall after their deaths were deemed a direct result of their wartime injuries.
The first commemorative event will take place at that touchstone for American grief and acceptance. The wall with the etched names of those 58,000 who died will be rededicated on Memorial Day.
For those who served and returned, the time is overdue to try to make it right, said President Obama.
Speaking at a White House ceremony on Wednesday in which he posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor to Army Specialist Leslie Sabo Jr., who was killed in Cambodia in 1970, Obama said the 50th anniversary will be a chance “for America to say to our Vietnam veterans what should have been said when you first came home: You did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud.’’
“They were the most underappreciated people in many ways during that period,’’ Melvin R. Laird, who served as secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973, said in an interview. “Most of them were drafted, not volunteers. ... It was not easy for any of them. As President Eisenhower told me at Walter Reed [Army hospital] before I became secretary of defense, ‘It was a big mistake to get into combat in Vietnam.’’’
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.