Last week, as I was traveling through an airport on business, I paused to thank a soldier in uniform and express my appreciation for her service to our country. There was nothing unique or even unusual in my action, since I, like most Americans, have tremendous admiration and respect for our men and women in uniform.
However, what happened immediately after my expression of gratitude once again reminded me of a time when such admiration and respect was not nearly as widespread as it is today.
After I had thanked the soldier, a man, apparently my contemporary in age (66), walked up to me with tears in his eyes-obviously moved-and with a choked voice, said, "Thank you so much for doing that. I just wish someone had done that for me when I came home from Vietnam." And before I could say anything he rushed away into the crowd.
This is not the first, second, or third time I have had this experience. I would estimate it has happened to me at least 50 times since September 11, 2001. Sometimes I have been able to say, "Sir, I hope you know you now have the gratitude of both this citizen and most of your countrymen." Other times, like last week, the veteran rushed away with a deep wound still in his heart.
Clearly, there are tens of thousands of men and women who served our nation with great valor and sacrifice under extremely difficult circumstances during the Vietnam War and who are walking around with tremendous emotional pain and hurt over the negative reception they received when they returned home.
Many of those who opposed the war then now concede that they were wrong in taking out their frustrations by disrespecting those who fought the war rather than on those who sent them there in the first place.
At Christmas time, the season of love, forgiveness and reconciliation, let us all as Americans, whether we supported or opposed the war, or were born long after it ended, resolve to heal this deep hurt of tens of thousands of our fellow Americans, and publicly honor those who served in Vietnam.
President Obama has given us a moving example of how we can all do this in his presidential proclamation on "Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War," which he issued on May 25th of this year (this dates the American participation in the war from January 1, 1962, when military advisors were sent to assist South Vietnam).
The president inaugurated a 13-year-long commemoration of our fellow citizens' Vietnam participation with this eloquent proclamation: "Let us renew our sacred commitment to those who answered our country's call in Vietnam and those who awaited their safe return. Beginning on Memorial Day 2012, the Federal Government will partner with local governments, private organizations, and communities across America to participate in the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War–a 13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced. While no words will ever be fully worthy of their service, nor any honor truly befitting their sacrifice, let us remember that it is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor."
This past Veterans Day, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke for an entire generation when he said, "Failure to thank those who were willing to put their lives on the line for this country, was burned into the soul of my generation." Secretary Panetta further noted, "The Vietnam generation is graying now. This 50th anniversary commemoration effort gives the country an opportunity… to remember those who served in this war and to recognize and honor their sacrifices."
I vividly remember Sylvester Stallone's character in the Rambo movies, Vietnam veteran John Rambo, being asked what he wanted by his commanding officer. He replied, in effect, on behalf of all of his fellow Vietnam veterans, "We want our country to love us as much as we love it."
Let us tell all of our Vietnam veterans, "We do love and honor you." And let's demonstrate it by asking military organizations all across our land to ask the Vietnam veterans to lead the Memorial Day parades next May. Let's give them the welcome homecoming parade they deserved but never received.