Jim Kent: Counting the ways we did our Vietnam veterans wrong

The Native American Women Warriors at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., Photo from NAWW / Facebook

Counting The Ways We Did Vietnam Veterans Wrong
By Jim Kent
Lakota Country Times Columnist

Talk to folks on either side of the political aisle and you’ll find they’re generally unhappy with the way the federal government counts. Whether it’s tax rates or wages, census figures or election results you’ll rarely find a situation where everyone agrees with the numbers and, even less frequently, where everyone is happy.

Still, you wouldn’t think there would be an issue with historic numbers – specifically dates. But there is.

Imagine, if you will, a federal spokesman announcing the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1786. People would ask questions, right? Or say the House Speaker declared the Battle of the Little Bighorn was on June 25, 1886. Inquiries would most definitely be made.

Then suppose President Obama stood in the White House garden encouraging us to acknowledge the huge step forward our country took in January 1875 when Congress finally approved the 13th Amendment ending slavery in the United States forever. Historians, educators and African-American leaders alike would demand an explanation. Why, they would ask, were 10 years arbitrarily deducted from that progressive move – when the 13th Amendment actually passed in January 1865? The same would, and should, be asked of a date change for any event that’s a part of our history.

Jim Kent. Photo from South Dakota Public Radio

In fact, it seems absurd for the issue to be discussed; except for the alarming reality that our government has shaved a full decade (and more) off the actual start of U.S. involvement in Vietnam – and continues to do so – as communities and organizations across the country regularly hold what are dubbed “Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration” ceremonies to “welcome home” and “honor” our Vietnam veterans.

The most recent took place in Rapid City this week and consisted – after a few nice words – of “awarding” veterans of that conflict a lapel pin.

Not being a Vietnam veteran I can’t really comment on what or how much those lapel pins might mean to anyone who receives one. I have interviewed a good many Nam vets over the years, however, and walked away with the impression that lapel pins – or even medals – weren’t high on their lists. Their primary concern regarding their service, if they still maintained one, was at the very least a formal public recognition for their sacrifices and the welcome home from a grateful nation that they never received.

But symbols of service or sacrifice aside, the real issue here is the blatant misrepresentation of the extent of our involvement in Vietnam. Our first military advisors touched down in 1955. Our first casualty - Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr. - was killed in 1956. In 1961, President Kennedy sent in 3,000 military “advisors”. In ‘62 there were 12,000 and in ‘63 15,000. In 1965, 200,000 “official” combat troops arrived.

Yet, it was in 2008 that the National Defense Authorization Act empowered the Secretary of Defense to conduct a program on behalf of the nation that commemorates “the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War” to begin – by presidential proclamation – on Memorial Day 2012 and end on Veterans Day 2025.

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And each of those dates: 2008, 2012 and 2025 relates to? Your guess is as good as mine. One would “almost” think that even after all the misery that conflict caused the “powers that be” were still trying to cloud the issue – and that, quite frankly, is a disgrace.

For those given their “Welcome Home” and lapel pins this year, it’s actually the 61st anniversary of the Vietnam War.

If “they” had really wanted to acknowledge everyone’s service – and the actual U.S. involvement in that Southeast Asian “undeclared” war – the feds would have engraved the dates “11/1/55 – 5/15/75” on those pins so the world would know the truth and so every man – and woman – who took part in that conflict would be included.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your service and for your sacrifice – from the first day to the last.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who currently lives in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Jim can be heard on a variety of radio programs including National Public Radio, South Dakota Public Radio, and National Native News Radio. He is also a columnist for the Rapid City Journal and a guest columnist for the Lakota Country Times. A former editor of The New Lakota Times, and a correspondent with a variety of Native American newspapers, Jim’s commentaries have appeared in national and international publications including U.S. News & World Report, Bergen Record (NJ), Suburban Trends (NJ), New York Daily News, Roanoke Times (VA), The Observer (OR) and American Heritage Magazine.

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