The following commentary is part of an ongoing series that compares the challenges in Vietnam to the challenges service members face today. Stream episodes of the PBS series The Vietnam War here.
I talked to a Vietnam veteran at The Wall once who told me in explicit and colorful terms exactly what he thought of the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several other political topics. When I remarked that he definitely was not “politically correct,” he explained that he had defended the Constitution of the United States of America, thereby earning his right to freedom of speech ― political correctness be damned.
Like many Vietnam veterans, when he returned home he was told to take off his uniform, grow his hair long, and not to tell anyone he had served in Vietnam.
But now is the time for Vietnam veterans to forget that advice and tell their stories.
The Vietnam War, the film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, just completed its debut airing on PBS.
I know some Vietnam veterans loved the film, some hated it. Some feel their perspective was not represented, or something important was left out.
In my experience, everything about the Vietnam War is still contentious. But that is good, because there will be lots of online discussions, many local events, and numerous other opportunities for veterans to say what they think.
THAT’S what we want. We want Vietnam veterans to finally share their experiences, to tell their stories, to vent their outrage, to remind us of their pride for having served their country even though they feel their country didn’t support them. We want them to pull out photos of their buddies, to leave remembrances on the Wall of Faces, to visit The Wall, to share what they think it all means.
We want them to help educate the next generation so that young people understand the real costs of war ― not in politics but in human lives.
The rest of us need to seek out our Vietnam veterans, thank them, welcome them home in a way many never were welcomed, and collect their stories before they are lost to history.
Finally, we need a place on the National Mall near the memorials where the sacrifices of veterans from ALL wars can be remembered, where millions of visitors each year can learn the answers to some of the questions posed by the film. We need a Visitor Center, and interpretive center ― an Education Center ― where those who do not serve in our military can learn about the sacrifices of the small percentage who do. An Education Center where people can see the faces, hear the stories, see items that have been left, and most importantly, to learn why it was necessary to have a Wall with 58,000 names in the first place.
So, to our Vietnam veterans ― now is the time to tell your story. Politically correct or not.
Jim Knotts is an Air Force veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and leads the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the organization that founded The Wall and still maintains it today.