Sunday, April 08, 2012
Welcome Home, Viet Nam Vets
There was a story on the news last night that caught my eye because it took place in Mahomet, Illinois. Where in tarnation is Mahomet, what does it have to do with Viet Nam veterans, and why would it pique my interest?
Mahomet is maybe ten/fifteen miles west of Champaign in the area referred to as East Central Illinois. Because of my bi-polar disease, I gave up custody of my kids and they lived in Farmer City, Illinois, a few miles farther west from Mahomet. When my daughter was in band her Freshman year of high school, the first parade she ever marched in was in Mahomet. I moved down to that area when I found myself on disability and unable to afford Chicago rents. So, hearing that the Chicago news picked up a story in Mahomet kind of shocked me. Not much happens down there.
The story was about a young veteran who lost a leg in Iraq. When he came home, his neighbors got together and built a house for him, but it turned out that he couldn’t maneuver his wheelchair in it very well. He was fairly alright during the day, but at night getting from his bed to the bathroom proved difficult. I’m not sure how they heard about it at the Art Institute of Chicago’s School of Design, but they did and some students and an instructor decided to turn it into a class project. They went down to Mahomet, took measurements, then came back to Chicago and came up with a design that would be more accessible. They made another trip downstate to install and implement their designs and the young man can now get back and forth between his bed and bathroom without bumping into anything or scraping the paint off the walls.
Okay, so what does this have to do with Viet Nam? The said she instructor came of age during the Viet Nam era. She remembers how the young men who returned home from that conflict were treated—pretty abominably. They weren’t welcomed home; they were spat upon and pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables by protesters when they deplaned in uniform. They didn’t dare set foot in public until their hair grew out so people wouldn’t immediately identify them as military or recent vets. There were no yellow ribbons or flag wavers for them. The instructor and her team have created a not-for-profit organization so they can create accessible living spaces for veterans of all ages.
Very few of us were able to separate the men from the politics back then and say, “This Viet Nam War sucks, but it’s not the soldiers’ fault.” I’m rather proud to say I was one of those few. I was a USO volunteer for two years before I enlisted in the Navy. I sometimes feel guilty accepting VA benefits because I enlisted for purely selfish reasons and I got pretty much everything I hoped for or expected from the Navy, as well as a few perks after I got out that I didn’t expect.
Today, I thank anyone who has served in harm’s way regardless of the campaign in which they served, but there’s an extra-soft spot in my heart for Viet Nam vets. They finally got their welcome home parade sometime in the eighties, around the time the Viet Nam Memorial was unveiled, but I think they deserved a lot more than that—an apology from the American public would help a lot. I met a man this morning when I was doing my daily walk at the Volo Auto Museum. He was not only a Viet Nam Veteran—he’d been a POW. He got a thank you, a hug and a salute after a good half-hour’s chat.
Part of the problem is that no one knew why we were in Viet Nam or how we got there. Viet Nam was a French colony until the early fifties when Communist China started infiltrating the country, and a Communist regime took hold. Somehow, the country split in half with the Communists running the North and the South teetering on the brink of communism. The French retreated and asked us to cover their derrieres. For a short time, they allowed people to move to South Viet Nam. We had hospital ships in Hanoi Harbor to help process the refugees, and military advisors in Viet Nam as early as 1954, and we didn’t leave until April, 1975. We withdrew from North Viet Nam and tried to prevent the Communists from taking over South Viet Nam. We were involved in the Vietnamese Civil War for 21 years, spanning the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon Administrations, and for those of you who love trivia, Nixon was Vice President when we went to Viet Nam and President when we came home. Should we have left when the last French citizen left? Possibly. Probably. We lost that war and communism took over South Viet Nam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and now the place is a tourist attraction.
Anyway, when you see a veteran—thank him or her.
Happy Easter; or Shalom.