Forty years ago today, the last American combat troops left Vietnam. The events of that day aren't imprinted on the national consciousness, as are images of overloaded helicopters taking off from Saigon. That evacuation of American personnel and Vietnamese refugees happened two years later, in 1975. Today's anniversary brings up an embarrassing and troubling set of emotions for some of us who questioned the war long ago.
According to the Associated Press, "Forty years ago, soldiers returning from Vietnam were advised to change into civilian clothes on their flights home so that they wouldn't be accosted by angry protesters at the airport." I could have been one of those protesters, and that makes me sad today.
What right did we have to take out our anger about the war on the men returning from combat? These were men who risked their lives in the belief that they were making our country safer; because of their choices or circumstances, they spared others of us from the fight. More than 58,000 Americans died. The once controversial and now iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington stands as testament to their sacrifice.
Approximately 75 percent of Vietnam era soldiers are still alive, according to an analysis in this week's New York Times. PBS reports that of the approximately 67,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. about half fought in Vietnam. Various government programs seek to address this intransigent issue, but results are spotty.
With America's longest war winding down in Afghanistan, and our combat troops gone from Iraq, it feels more appropriate to offer love and help, not spite to our returning veterans. President Obama reminds us at every opportunity that the men and women who have given up their lives, their arms or legs, or their peace of mind to fight these more recent wars deserve nothing but gratitude.
Still, troubling questions remain about the welcome we're giving current veterans. Is the Department of Veterans Affairs failing them? Recent news about astounding backlogs confronting veterans seeking disability compensation and other help that they have earned has caused many returning service members to give up hope. Here's a summary from PBS: "Nearly 250,000 veterans wait more than a year for their medical claims to wind through the Veterans Administration before receiving their earned benefits ... [A]lmost 1 million veterans are currently waiting for their benefit claims to be processed and that the wait time has grown 2,000 percent in the past four years."
To further understand the magnitude of the problem, see this disheartening infographic drawn from a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Not only are veterans' benefits being delayed, the high rate of suicide among veterans is worsening. And here's something we know for sure: if a proposal called the chained CPI is adopted for calculating annual adjustments to Social Security and veterans benefits, disabled veterans will be chief among those hurt.
In other words, maybe we should stop patting ourselves on the back for extending public acclaim to our "wounded warriors" and other returning vets. They may not face the anger that greeted Vietnam vets 40 years ago, but we are failing them.
At least there's some good news: this week the Pentagon restored a veteran tuition assistance program that had been suspended due to the sequestration follies on Capitol Hill. The program provides up to $4,500 per year for service members to continue their education.
On this anniversary, perhaps each of us should consider doing something personal to help the returning veterans of our latest wars. It won't erase the mistakes of the past, but it might be a small step in helping these young men and women have the futures they deserve.
Photo: Charles Harrity/AP Photo
Also of Interest
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