The scourge of the Vietnam War continues to reappear, often in strange ways.
The aftermath of that ill-advised military combat forever changed our Defense Department, not only in the way America engages an enemy force on the ground — but also in how our military leaders communicate our status and strategies while a war effort is underway.
During the Gulf War, for example, General Norman Schwarzkopf held a live daily press conference to convey up-to-the-minute details of how the war was progressing. War is now no longer exclusively a military undertaking — it has a public relations component as well.
The horror of the My Lai massacre was something the Pentagon tried to hide or brush aside. Instead of feeling like a hero for having saved hundreds of lives, Lt. Hugh Thompson grew tired of the controversy that followed him out of Vietnam. His assignments to other military locations allowed him the chance to become anonymous again and to conceal his role at My Lai.
But 20 years after his retirement from the Army, British television forced him into the news headlines for a second time.
London reporters had chosen to produce a documentary series on random heroes. They searched out Thompson as well as his co-pilot, Larry Coburn, and reported in detail of the number of lives they had saved under the threat of gunfire from their own fellow soldiers.
To the chagrin of our military leadership, the story of My Lai and Thompson’s heroic efforts had became international news again.
It would take another 10 years after that report before the U.S. Army could swallow its remaining pride and political reputation, and finally agree to hold a public ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial Wall to honor Hugh Thompson and Larry Coburn with the Soldier’s Medal for Heroism.
On the official Pentagon record, Thompson’s daring decision to save the lives of helpless civilians ultimately had become a part of U.S. military ethics manuals, and was later added into some European training manuals as well.
Now, more than 40 years after our troops left southeast Asia for the last time, a new Vietnamese killer has been affecting the lives of U.S. veterans. The name of this silent assassin is cholangiocarcinoma. It’s a rare cancer that comes from parasites that were ingested along with raw or poorly cooked river fish. Those minute liver flukes can attach themselves to the lining of a person’s bile duct, causing scarring, inflammation, and infection, according to reports.
Over decades, that rare infection can progress into this form of cancer.
More than 700 Vietnam veterans filed for medical benefits from this deadly threat, noted a report in 2016. As one such vet, Michael Baughman, told The Chicago Tribune that year, “It’s hard to believe. I spent two tours of duty dodging all those Viet Cong bullets, and now I’m getting killed by a bad fish.”
To make matters worse, the VA health care system said there is no direct proof of a connection with this ailment to the veterans’ time of military service, according to data obtained by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act and as reported by the Tribune in 2016. See this document from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which addresses the issue.
The wounds of Vietnam are still not fully healed.
Daniel Forbes Hauser spent four years researching and writing his new book, “Revolution and Renaissance: 1965-1975” (History Publishing, November 2019). He conducted interviews with more than 100 people to document their observations and experiences. A graduate of Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado, he holds a B.A. in philosophy and history from Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois.
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