Many of them were 18 or 19 when they enlisted or were drafted. They were trained to fight in a far-off land, to stop communism from spreading into Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, all that is ugly about war – in this case, the Vietnam War – was broadcast into American living rooms for the first time. As the human and financial costs of the war grew, opinions collided – sometimes violently, in the U.S. capital, on college campuses and on city streets.
When U.S. military personnel came home, many with injuries and memories that would still haunt them decades later, there was no welcome.
“They were not treated like heroes as those who returned from Korea and World War II,” said Washington State Rep. Norm Johnson (R-Toppenish). “Instead, they were portrayed as baby killers, warmongers and other things.… That had a traumatic effect on these soldiers that is still painful to these days as many of them refuse to talk about their experiences.”
Now, thirty eight years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the war, Washington state’s Vietnam War veterans will finally be welcomed home.
State House Bill 1319 establishes March 30 of every year as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in Washington state. The bill, introduced by Johnson and co-sponsored by 38 state House members, was unanimously approved by the House on February 20. On March 25, the state Senate also unanimously passed the measure, sending it to Governor Jay Inslee for his signature.
March 30 would not be a public holiday, but rather a day of public remembrance. However, all public buildings and schools would be required to fly the POW/MIA flag; that flag is also flown on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day and Veterans Day.
The observance was proposed to Johnson by Gil Calac of the Yakama Warriors Association, a Native veterans organization with about 190 members who make sure that veterans are not forgotten. Calac, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1969-70, spoke for the bill February 6 and March 14. His compelling testimony moved the Washington legislators to act quickly and affirmatively on this bill.
At the March 14 hearing before the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations, Calac said Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day would help veterans “put away our guilt, the shame, the grief and despair,” and heal from the animosity veterans faced when they returned home.
Calac told of one veteran who returned home from Vietnam and was discharged in Oakland, California. He was spit upon while wearing his uniform. Upset, he went into a bar, where he was spit upon again. Linda McNeely, who joined Calac at the hearing, told the committee a similar story of how her husband was spit upon at the airport when he returned home from the war.
“The scars will always be there forever,” Calac said. “I know we can’t change the past, but we can help our Vietnam War veterans by opening the door and saying, ‘Welcome home.’”
Calac served in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry, 165th Signal Company from 1969-70. He served 15 months in Vietnam. He received the Bronze Star, the fifth-highest combat decoration, but won’t speak about the circumstances that led to his receiving the medal.
“Two years ago was the first time I ever talked about getting the Bronze Star,” he said. “I still haven’t taken it out of the case.”
After returning home from Vietnam, he coped with alcohol and drug dependence. His first marriage ended in divorce; he said he almost lost his second marriage and his children as well. He’s now been sober for 28 years, which he credits to his Native religion, Washat, and traditional foods.
Had Vietnam War veterans been welcomed home at the start, closure and healing could have taken place earlier, he said.
“A classmate told me he just started getting treated for PTSD two years ago,” Calac said. “[The trauma] is ingrained in you. You hide it, but it sneaks up on you. It comes out.”
State Rep. John McCoy (D-Tulalip) was a communications operator in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines during the Tet Offensive. He remembers the stack of coffins at the morgue across the street from his work station. His wife, Jeannie, worked as a civilian in the records section of the base hospital, and remembers the injured soldiers on stretchers in the hospital hallways.
“It was pretty hard on her,” McCoy said. “From the time we left the Philippines until 1994, she wouldn’t step into a hospital.”
McCoy was the first co-sponsor of HB 1319. “It’s time,” McCoy said. “A lot of those Vietnam vets are still suffering. That piece of legislation is going to help them heal.”
According to the National Archives, 58,220 Americans–1,047 from Washington state – are known to have died in the Vietnam War. The Library of Congress POW/MIA Databases & Documents website reports that as of November 2001, 1,948 Americans remain unaccounted for in Vietnam.
“In the little town of Toppenish where I grew up and served on the city council and as mayor, 13 men from that community paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” Rep. Johnson told the state Senate committee. “That’s a per capita death rate eight times that of the nation’s and 12 times that of the state. I also have a cousin who lies in the cemetery at Zillah who came home in a box from Vietnam.”
In a speech he gave at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on Memorial Day 1993, Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey said the average infantryman in the Vietnam War saw about 240 days of combat in one year – 200 more days than an infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II – thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. One out of every 10 Americans who served in the Vietnam War was a casualty; an estimated 304,000 were wounded and, at the time of McCaffrey’s speech, 75,000 Vietnam War veterans were living with war-related disabilities.
Heidi Audette, communications director for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, told the committee Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day would help future generations understand the service and sacrifice Vietnam War veterans made on behalf of their state and country.
“We’re also really hopeful that this will continue to encourage Vietnam and other veterans to come forward and seek out the benefits they so richly deserve from their service to our country,” Audette said. “There are so many Vietnam veterans that have yet to connect with the benefits that they earned because of their service, so we’re hopeful this will help in that way as well.”
Calac said several attempts in the U.S. Congress to pass a national Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day have failed; Calac and others are now lobbying to have the observance adopted state by state. (In 2011 and 2012, President Obama signed an executive order proclaiming March 29 of those years as Vietnam Veterans Day.)
The legislatures in several states, California and Texas among them, have established a Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. Calac said he and others are going to lobby next in Idaho, Arizona and Nevada.
Rep. Johnson has invited the Yakama Warriors to present the colors March 29 at the State Capitol, the day before the new observance. Calac is inviting other Vietnam War veterans to participate. Following a short ceremony, veterans and family members will gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Statehouse grounds. There will be a pow wow drum ceremony and a circle of life will be formed by the religious leaders who are on hand. Calac is hoping to have pins and ribbons for all Vietnam Veterans to wear.
The website for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs is Dva.wa.gov. If you are a vet or know a vet who needs assistance, contact the Washington State VA at 360-725-2200 or 800-562-0132.