The ‘Huge Debt of Gratitude’ Owed to Vietnam Vets

Ceremony on the National Mall on Saturday will commemorate the 50th anniversary of America's most controversial war

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 01 Dec 2017 at 8:55 PM

Even as the American people began to sour on the war in Iraq, nearly everyone who spoke out against it took pains to distinguish between a policy they considered misguided and the men and women who were carrying it out.

That is no accident, said Andrew Brennan, a former Army officer deployed in Afghanistan.

"My generation owes a hug debt of gratitude to the Vietnam guys for that," he said.

Brennan will participate in a ceremony Saturday on the National Mall in Washington commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War, America's most divisive foreign conflict.

The event will feature speakers, including a Medal of Honor recipient who tackled a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.

"After that, everybody will be putting in some elbow grease," Brennan said, referring to plans to clean the Vietnam Memorial.

"This is personally for me, a pretty cool event," said Brennan.

Personal because Brennan has a relative who died in combat during the Vietnam War. "I actually have a cousin whose name is on that wall," he said.

The commemoration, organized by leading veterans mortgage lender NewDay USA, will feature speeches from the company's CEO and executive chairman, along with Emmy award-winning reporter and documentary director Morton Dean.

Thomas Lynch, a retired rear admiral who serves as executive chairman of the company, said the event on Saturday is just one of a large number of ways that demonstrate that "part of our ethos is to give back to that [veteran] community."

A 1964 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Lynch did not see combat in the war. But he said the names of nine classmates and a high school buddy are among the 57,939 names on the wall. Like Brennan, he reflected on the difference in the reception Vietnam veterans received compared with other wars.

"There was no ticker tape parade," he said.

Lynch said history has shown misguidance on both sides of the debate that played out during the Vietnam War.

"You can be against the Vietnam War," he said. "But that doesn't mean you have to be against the soldier."

Jan Scruggs, president emeritus of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, also is tentatively scheduled to speak. Brennan said he considers Scruggs a mentor in his drive to get Congress to pass a law for a memorial honoring the men and women who have served since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Brennan, executive director of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation, said he decided to start the organization after bumping into participants of "Ride for the Wall" during a hiking trip in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The annual event draws thousands of motorcycle riders from Los Angeles to the Vietnam Memorial.

"It begged the question, what is my generation going to ride to?" he said.

Brennan lobbied Congress to pass a law allowing for the construction of a memorial for his generation of veterans. The catch is that all of the money has to be raised privately, including funds for maintenance of the memorial.

He said the campaign got commitments for $1 million within 30 days of the law's passage. He estimated the total needed at between $30 million and $40 million.

Brennan said he is striving for construction to begin sometime between summer 2022 and 2024.

That timeline is dictated not just by fundraising considerations but the bureaucratic process. He said the effort is on step nine of a 24-step process. Still to be determined are the precise location of the memorial and the design. He said his group plans to hold a national design contest.

In the meantime, Brennan said, he hopes America never again takes out frustrations about an unpopular war on the people who fight it.

Related: On the Marine Corps' Birthday: Four Memorable Films

"That generation was not welcomed home as victors, and they were treated rather harshly by some of their countrymen," he said. "There is a very strong connection between the Vietnam generation and my generation."

Some veterans organizations even gave a hard time to soldiers returning from Vietnam, Brennan said.

"They were not just shunned by the civilian population," he said.

U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950s, in support of the French, and escalated in the 1960s in what became a deadly war against the Viet Cong, communist guerrillas supported by China and Russia. The U.S. withdrew its troops in 1973 and Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to communist forces in 1975, ending the war. A total of 58,220 Americans were killed in the war, and more than a quarter million South Vietnamese.

(photo credit, homepage image: Vietnam War 1972, CC BY 2.0, by manhhai; photo credit, article image: UH-1D Helicopters Airlift Members of a U.S. Infantry Regiment)

  1. 50th-anniversary
  2. memorial
  3. veterans
  4. vietnam-war
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