Vietnam Vets Pave Way for Veteran Support


When I came back from my first deployment as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2002, I was greeted with fanfare, balloons and music, and was proudly wearing my uniform.  People stopped me in the street to say thank you and crowds cheered for us in airports.  In today’s parlance you can’t be a true patriot unless you “support the troops.” This public support and reverence to veterans is what we owe the men and women who voluntarily risk their lives to defend American freedom and interests.

But it wasn’t always this way. Vietnam veterans fundamentally changed the way American society treats and supports those who volunteer to defend our nation.

When the young men and women who survived combat in Vietnam returned home they were ridiculed and chided for being part of an unpopular war. They would throw their uniforms away in airport restrooms or join in anti-war protest on college campuses just to remain anonymous. Many veterans of the Vietnam generation were afraid to wear their uniform in public and quickly tried to forget their service, as well as their associated physical and mental trauma. Like the World War II and Korea generation before them, they buried their military background. Similarly, American society also wanted to forget the events that occurred in the far-off lands, and we turned our backs on those who bore the burden of serving our nation. It wasn’t until 1982 that things began to change.

On Veteran’s Day of that year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., opened to the public. Finally the nation had paid its respects to the more than 58,000 men and women who gave their lives in that bloody conflict. Vietnam veterans came out of the woodwork. They began wearing their old uniforms, dawning hats and wearing patches that proudly announced they had served in Vietnam, and speaking out about the way they were treated when they came home.  Even after years of repressed emotions and shattered dreams Vietnam veterans were still proud of their service and would stop at nothing to honor those who fought and fell. And the American people took notice.

When it came time for our next large-scale conflict, the first Gulf War and our push to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, it was Vietnam vets who led the charge to get behind the troops and ensure the nation had their back. When our soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors triumphantly returned a few short months later they were welcomed home as heroes. Vietnam vets encouraged them to speak about their experience, organize, and reintegrate back into society.

It would be just over 10 years later that we would once again be asking less than 1% of our population to defend and avenge our country’s honor. In the wake of September 11th, it was again the Vietnam generation that prepared the latest generation of troops for the challenges they would be facing both at home and abroad. For the last decade they have stood behind us, supported us, and ensured that Americans never forget our sacrifice. Today veterans enjoy the thanks and praise of a grateful nation. For that, this combat veteran will be forever grateful to the men and women who proudly served in Vietnam.

-Jason Cain, Director of Outreach at VVMF

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