Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Memorial Day 2016, I encourage members of the Association of the U.S. Army and everyone else to give some thought to the almost 1 million service members who have died in combat theaters during our nation’s history. The sacrifice of those who died in the service of the United States of America, and the grief of their families and friends, are reminders that there is a tragic price for American freedom, paid by young men and women who take up arms to fight on behalf of our nation.

On this Memorial Day, I also hope we spend some time thinking about our nation’s Vietnam veterans, an often overlooked generation of almost 9 million people, including 3.4 million who served in Southeast Asia. More than 58,000 died and more than 153,000 were injured in a war that started for the U.S. in 1964 and ended in 1975.

Vietnam-era veterans make up about one-third of all living veterans. I’m one of them, having served a combined 28 months in-country in two tours, the first in 1962 as an adviser and again in 1969 as a personnel management officer with Headquarters, I Field Force.

Medals of Honor were awarded to 258 Vietnam veterans, 162 of them posthumously. Soldiers received 172 of the medals, with retired Col. Roger H.C. Donlon the first Vietnam War recipient. Donlon received the nation’s highest award for valor for his actions on July 6, 1964, during a five-hour battle after his small outpost was attacked by a Viet Cong battalion. “We should never surrender,” Donlon said of the Special Forces detachment he led. “Our only goal was victory.” Two of his men, an Australian adviser and about 50 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the battle.

Donlon’s award citation says, “His dynamic leadership, fortitude, and valiant efforts inspired not only the American personnel but the friendly Vietnamese defenders as well and resulted in the successful defense of the camp.” He also credits him with “inspiring his men to superhuman effort.”

By bipartisan congressional authorization and presidential proclamation, we are in a 13-year period—from Memorial Day 2012 through Veterans Day 2025—commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. This is a time to acknowledge the service of Vietnam veterans and their families, and also to recognize contributions made by government, industry and allies.

More than 9,000 local, state and national organizations, businesses and governmental agencies have joined the Defense Department’s Vietnam War Commemoration program as commemorative partners, and are conducting events and activities in small towns and large cities that publicly share the nation's gratitude with these warriors and their families. Smaller, quieter commemorations of the service of Vietnam veterans are also being held by friends and family.