Vietnam Diaries Return Home. A Photo Lives On.

It’s been 50 years since the beginning of the Vietnam War. Though the battles may have ended, the war’s legacy lives on.

Just this week, letters written by American and Vietnamese soldiers during the war were exchanged.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Hanoi this month and during the visit, he and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phuong Quang Thanh exchanged personal papers taken from the bodies of each country’s troops.

U.S. Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty wrote to his mother about a tough spot he had been in and how lucky he was to get out.  He got into another tough spot shortly after, and never wrote home again. When he was killed in March 1969, his letters ended up in the hands of North Vietnamese soldiers.  A Vietnamese colonel kept the letters since the war and mentioned them in an online publication last year. An American researcher came across the reference a few months later and worked with Pentagon and State Department officials and their Vietnamese counterparts to give the letters to Panetta, who will have them returned to Flaherty’s family.

To complete the exchange, Panetta returned a diary taken in 1966 by an American Marine from the body of Vu Dinh Doan, a Vietnamese solider. The American brought the diary home and kept it after the war.

Read more about the letter exchange here.

This week an iconic photo from the Vietnam War turned 40. In the photo, a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl is running away from her burning Vietnamese village after napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin.

The photo was taken June 8, 1972 when North and South Vietnamese forces fought for control of the village. You can see the photo and read the girl’s story here.

These are the kinds of stories that must be told. It’s especially fitting now, as the Department of Defense and our nation are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The legacy of the long and costly conflict lives on though the veterans who came home and the families of those who did not. Our society cannot forget those great sacrifices or the values those veterans exemplified through their service and heroism.

The Education Center at the Wall will provide a home for those stories so that future generations will be able to develop a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made by those in uniform during the Vietnam War, and also the sacrifices of all American service members and their families. The Center, which will be located on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans and Lincoln memorials, will allow visitors to learn about the war they fought, but also about the lives they lived and the people they left behind.