Reflections From History And Faith
By Jeff Olson
Fifty years ago this week, March 29, 1973, the last U.S. combat troops departed from South Vietnam, ending America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the war for numerous Vietnam veterans. In some ways, the deepest and most enduring wounds came after the war in the form of an unappreciative and often too critical nation. Among the attempts to ameliorate this was the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, signed into law by U.S. President Donald J. Trump. This law designated every March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. This special day joins six other military-centric annual observances codified in Title 4 of the United States Code 6 – among them Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. National Vietnam War Veterans Day is a time to pay special tribute to the 9 million Americans who served during the Vietnam War era, to the more than 58,000 names memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and to those who never received the recognition and respect they deserved when they returned to America from the war.
With each and every Veteran of the Vietnam War comes a story…of a family, a husband, a father, a brother, a wife, or a sister. Some of you could share your own personal family stories or stories about a friend who is or was a Vietnam Veteran. Allow me to share my own personal reflections which include some special people I had the honor and privilege of knowing, if only for a brief but memorable time in my life.
Smitty was a tall, handsome man of about 30 years old I would say. He and his wife lived across the street from us when I was in junior high school. She spoke with a German accent which is what I remember most about her, though she was a very pretty lady as well. She and Smitty met in Germany, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. He was still in the service when they moved to our neighborhood sometime around 1969 or 1970. I remember he was gone much of the time, but when he was home, he came over occasionally and visited with us. As I recall most, he was an avid baseball fan and had played extensively in his school years. At the time, I played baseball in school and was one of the pitchers. Smitty saw me practicing one day and asked me if I would mind if he gave me some pointers. Of course, I said so he proceeded, and he taught me a lot, and for that, I will always be grateful. My parents thought a lot of him and his wife. He was such a likable guy with a great personality, but more than that he was a patriot in every sense of the word. I don’t even remember Mr. Smith’s first name, but I remember him, and that’s what counts.
During those times he was gone, he was in Vietnam. I forget what his job was, but I do remember he was part of a field fighting unit and an officer who saw combat. How many tours he did, I don’t remember either, but what I do remember is that he did more tours than what was required. One of those tours was his last, not by choice but by a severe wound that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
But guess what…You wouldn’t have known his situation if you were just talking to him on the phone. On the outside, even in his wheelchair, he was at heart the same ole’ Smitty, and with no regrets, he said. What a man! Oh, I’m sure he had a pity party or two and likely what we would call PTSD today, but it was kept inside, behind closed doors. We heard later that he and his wife had divorced. We’ll never know the full story or the real depth of his wounds.
The next part of my story is about Jake. I met Jake in 1979 through my job, but never actually got to work with him on a regular basis. Jake, a man in his early sixties at the time I’d say, was kind, interesting, and very intelligent. He never went to college, or at least never graduated, but had he done so, there is no telling how far he would have gone up the career ladder. But, as I remember it, that wasn’t the most important thing in life for Jake. He made a decent living with the good job he had, loved where he lived, and had a good wife and, with her raised a family. Jake’s ambitions were for his children and their future. I believe Jake served in the military during either in World War II, the Korean War or perhaps both.
Jake’s son served in the military also – in Vietnam. He seldom spoke of his son, but when he did, it was with a strong sense of pride and a deep sense of pain. I eventually learned that his son did come home, but not in the way his parents had hoped and prayed for. I remember my struggle to hold back tears as he spoke misty-eyed of his son’s return home…. in body parts. I cannot even begin to imagine how a parent could deal with such a loss of that nature, depth, and magnitude, but then again, perhaps I can in some small degree. Jake and his wife were people of a deep and abiding faith in God.
I haven’t seen Smitty or Jake for many years and don’t even know if either is still living, though I’m sure Jake isn’t. What I do know is that they represented tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their families who, for years, were not afforded the well-deserved respect and gratitude from a country they served so selflessly, faithfully, and sacrificially.
In the late 1970s, and initially through the vision of Jan C. Scruggs, who served in Vietnam (the 199th Light Infantry Brigade) from 1969-1970 as an infantry corporal, that respect and gratitude began to take the form of a memorial. On July 1, 1980, in the Rose Garden, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation (P.L. 96-297) to provide a site in Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial. It was over a three-year task to build the memorial. On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC. Included on the Wall are servicemen and servicewomen classified as KIA (Killed in Action) beginning in October 1957. In addition, approximately 1,200 servicemen are listed as missing (MIAs, POWs, and others). Names of Veterans whose lost records of wartime death were found later and those who died after the war as a direct result of injuries suffered in the combat zone continue to be added.
When I think of the Vietnam War, I can’t help but remember a song that came out back in 1989 titled “The Wall.”Written by Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers and sung by them, it told of a mother’s visit to the Wall, where she found her son’s name. How many mothers and other family have lived these words with tears, grief, and pride?
“I saw her from a distance as she walked up to the wall. In her hand, she held some flowers, as her tears began to fall. She took out pen and paper as to trace her memories.
She looked up to heaven, and the words she said were these. She said, “Lord my boy was special, and he meant so much to me. And oh, I’d love to see him just one more time you see. All I have are the mem’ries and the moments to recall. So, Lord could you tell him he’s more than a name on a wall.”
As we observe Vietnam Veterans Day on Wednesday of this week, shall we remember there are nearly 58,300 names on the wall and, especially their family members who are still living day in day out with their sacrifice? And let’s be very thankful for those Vietnam Veterans who are still with us today. We hope their memories of a less than grateful nation upon their return have healed enough since that they may forgive us and accept with our love and respect the nation’s efforts to elevate them to their well-earned place of honor in our hearts and history.
Cover photo by Jeff Olson