It’s been nearly 50 years since U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam.
It marked the end of a tumultuous time in America, when war abroad and discontent at home made for a volatile situation. When the conflict finally ceased, those who had served received, by and large, little national gratitude. Few parades were held in their honor. Little recognition of their bravery was offered. In fact, it was just as likely for someone to turn their back on a Vietnam veteran as it was for them to shake their hand.
Caught up in the politics of the moment and the cultural upheaval that marked the 1960s and 1970s, history has for a long time forgotten about the Vietnam vet. That, however, has been changing over the last decade or more as a younger generation seems intent on making amends for the disservice done to many of our service men and women more than 40 years ago.
That’s why the arrival of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall is so important. We still, as a nation, have a lot of “thanking” left to do. While the debate over the legitimacy of the Vietnam War continues and will likely never subside, there should be no debate — should never have been any debate — over the debt owed to those who served during that time period.
Perhaps it is coming late for these veterans, but better late than never. With each passing year, we end up further away from the events of the war, and we lose more veterans to Father Time.
As we watch the “greatest generation” get older, we recognize that our ability to both learn from and honor those who served is short. The men who fought in the Civil War and World War I are no longer here to thank. We can only visit gravesites and monuments to acknowledge their heroism and their rightful place in our history. But we can offer a hand shake to those who served in Vietnam.
We can also listen to and learn from them. They lived through one of the most impactful times in American history. They fought in a war we now can only read about. They don’t need to watch a documentary or the most recent Hollywood depiction of some battle to know what it’s like to experience combat. They lived it, first-hand.
The fact that this wall arrives just a few short days after Memorial Day seems fitting. The names etched on it are the very ones we recognize every last Monday in May. They allow us to put a name, a face, a story, a life, to the saying that “Freedom isn’t free.” When the bill is added up, the payment is their sacrifice.
Those who have visited the wall in Washington, D.C., know there is nothing quite like it. The environment around that monument feels different than around virtually any other. A quiet, somber air seems to settle permanently over it, no matter the number of people or the noise that surrounds the wall. Perhaps the smaller replica, erected on a field at Bartlem Park, can’t hope to duplicate that exact feeling. However, if 15 years ago is any indication, those who experience the wall for the first time right here in Cheshire are likely to get the next best thing.
If you didn’t go in 2007, we highly encourage you to make the time this week. If you’ve never been to the monument in D.C., this experience will almost assuredly set a future trip in motion.
The need to honor our Vietnam veterans has not subsided. We owe them, yet the account can never truly be settled. What can we do? Read the names on a wall, and shed reverential tears for what each one represents — the end of a life in service of a country.