Leaving a legacy
Ways to celebrate vets before they pass on, and after they've died
For any American, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., can be one of the most powerful and emotional ways to honor the more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service to our country. For Vietnam-era veterans, a visit can provide closure and reinforce the importance of their sacrifice.
“Many monuments and memorials exist around the country honoring those Vietnam vets who were killed, along with the Vietnam Wall in D.C. that is the main anchor for honoring those Vietnam veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Bob Babcock, who served with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division as a rifle platoon leader and executive officer, 1966-67 in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Since the Wall officially opened in November 1982, people have left tributes there in honor of veterans such as dog tags, medals and other special remembrances. Some people leave more — the cremated remains of veterans. As the age of the remaining population of Vietnam veterans increases, so has the leaving of cremains.
This January the National Park Service erected signs advising people not to leave cremains. One sign reads: “The scattering of human remains is prohibited anywhere on the National Mall, including at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Human remains and associated objects should not be left at the memorial and will not become part of the museum collection.”
The National Park Service has collected more than 400,000 objects left at the Wall, from sonograms and international flags to military regalia and wedding rings, to teddy bears and even a motorcycle. Those mementos are curated to form the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, which “provides context for a better understanding of the many aspects of the Vietnam War and its veterans,” said Mike Litterst, National Park Service spokesman.
But the park service “is not equipped for the long-term disposition of human remains as a cemetery or mausoleum. It has never been permissible to leave cremains at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Those that have been left are currently stored at National Park Service’s Museum Resource Center while we determine an appropriate, dignified solution,” Litterst said in February.
Veterans or their families seeking a final resting place to honor a loved one are encouraged to contact the National Cemetery Administration, cem. va.gov, the federal agency specifically charged with with honoring America’s veterans and their sacrifice to our nation, he said.
The war was complicated, but the legacy of Vietnam veterans shouldn’t be.
“Most Vietnam veterans participated in the Vietnam War because we felt it was our duty and our responsibility,” Babcock said. “Just as others before us, we who did what our country asked us to do in Vietnam simply did our part to pay the price for living in this great country that many before us fought to create and preserve.”
Too many people today take our freedom for granted and don’t personally know anyone in the military, Babcock said.
“We who answered our country’s call during the Vietnam War can hold our heads high that we did what all Americans should be willing to do when called on. Those who were draft dodgers probably have regrets, in their private moments, that they shirked their responsibility back when they were young men.
“I did my duty, made lifelong friends, learned lessons that have served me well all my life, have a strong patriotic sense of responsibility to our country and its defense ‘against all enemies — foreign and domestic,’ and am a better man because I served in Vietnam. I made more important decisions as a 23-year old rifle platoon leader than I ever made in my 34-year career as an IBM executive,” Babcock said.
Casualties keep mounting
Those who served in Vietnam have long been the nation’s largest group of veterans, numbering 6.7 million in 2016, according to the U.S. census. Now in their late 60s to 80s, these veterans are experiencing the normal maladies associated with aging, and many are dying at a faster rate because of Agent Orange.
“It’s tragic. Just like World War II and Korean vets, it’s now Vietnam vets’ time,” said Paul Palazzolo, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 9, in Detroit.
Veterans who returned home from Vietnam and later died as a result of their service are often not eligible for inclusion on the Wall.
“When the Wall was built in 1982, no one knew that veterans were going to continue dying from Vietnam-related causes,” said Heidi Zimmerman, spokeswoman for Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit organization that founded and built the Wall.
The group’s In Memory program is “a way for us to honor Vietnam veterans for their service and sacrifice after they came home. The In Memory plaque was dedicated in 2004 just off to the side of the Three Servicemen Statue in D.C. and it reads: ‘In Memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice,’ ” Zimmerman said.
“The majority of our honorees (more than 3,200 total to date) died from Agent Orange-related illnesses and/or PTSD-related events — suicide,” she said.
Visit the In Memory homepage, vvmf.org/InMemoryProgram, where each veteran has his or her own page that offers more information about them. Veterans added to In Memory are honored each year on Father’s Day with a ceremony. Last year, more than 400 veterans were honored by almost 2,000 family members and friends in attendance. Each honoree’s name is said aloud either by a family member or a volunteer. Previous honorees’ families are invited to attend.
“They describe it as very healing to be around other families who have been through very similar experiences. In Memory costs nothing to the family member/ applicant, and it really does help a family with healing and closure,” Zimmerman said.
When it comes to the legacy of Vietnam veterans, who better to speak of it than themselves?
“There‘s a growing interest across the country” to get veterans’ stories “on the record,” especially after last fall’s 18-hour PBS series “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, said Edward Miller, associate professor of history and director of the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, Dartmouth College.
The Dartmouth project is an oral history endeavor that brings together students and older members of the Dartmouth community to record testimony. Rather than focusing exclusively on veterans, it is a community-building measure, Miller said.
“Vietnam touched a big part of the population, just about everybody. When you start to record you begin to see the diversity of stories and experiences of veterans, protesters, families. No single veteran’s perspective is the same, but most express pride in their service,” Miller said.
Oral histories by veterans give others who weren’t present — or even alive — a powerful sense of what it means to serve. “It’s rare to understand the higher sacrifice made by veterans,” said documentarian Ron Osgood, professor emeritus at Indiana University and a veteran who was deployed three times to Vietnam between 1970 and 1972.
There’s no comparison to learning about war from an individual’s perspective to understand it, said Osgood, whose most recent film is “Just Like Me: The Vietnam War — Stories from All Sides,” produced by Indiana Public Television as a companion piece to “The Vietnam War.”
Collectively, movies made about Vietnam or the way it’s viewed in popular culture rarely focus on the individual but rather the horror or carnage of war, Osgood said.
“Vets have stories to share, and many times wives or families haven’t heard them. Like the World War II and Korea veterans, these stories are disappearing,” Osgood said. For the “boots on the ground,” now is the time to share their stories, Babcock said.
“It is the 50th anniversary of the year in the war — 1968 — where we suffered the most casualties, had the most victories and had the press and the nation turn against the Vietnam veteran and the Vietnam War. ... It is more important now than ever for we Vietnam veterans to tell our stories — those of us who lived and fought the Vietnam War — rather than let someone else tell the story for us.”
Honor veterans in life
Paying tribute to fallen heroes keeps them in mind, but a better way is to honor them while they’re still alive, Palazzolo said. Visiting the National Mall, the monuments in your own town or a Veterans Day parade are all simple ways to start.
“Detroit holds a massive Veterans Day parade,” and last year about 4,000 veterans made the 2-mile march, Palazzolo said. Other top Veterans Day parades are in New York City; Auburn, Washington; Albany, New York; Birmingham, Alabama; Las Vegas and Houston.
• Visit a V.A. hospital: Veterans of all wars seek health care in Veterans Administration hospitals, and there may be one near your community.
“Go visit the guys laid up in bed. Everyone goes at Christmas or other holidays. Do it another time,” Palazzolo said.
Bring small gifts like toiletries (razors, combs), magazines or candy bars.
“A visit can make a big difference in someone’s life and is a great way to teach young people,” Palazzolo said.
“There are a lot of little things you can do like bring vets to the hospital,” Osgood said. Help is needed in all departments, and your assistance frees up staff for more important work, he said.
If America is going to be the world’s policeman, Palazzolo said, “we better make sure we take care of veterans when they return from service.”
• Shop and support: “You get to pick and choose where your money is going. Spend it at businesses that support and hire veterans,” Palazzolo said.
The unemployment rate for veterans is the lowest it’s been since September 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One reason is that many employers have made a commitment to hiring veterans. The workforce of companies like Boeing and Union Pacific Railroad are 15 to 20 percent veterans, but that doesn’t help the average household shopper.
Other companies that value the leadership, discipline and other skills of veterans include JetBlue, Amazon, Verizon, Sprint, Macy’s, Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Delta and MetLife. All have been recognized for actively recruiting veterans. Many more are listed at vetcentral.us.jobs/veteransmembers.asp.
• A Million Thanks: Share your gratitude with a veteran though A Million Thanks, a nonprofit organization that has distributed more than 7 million “thank you” letters to active-duty service members and veterans around the world, said Matthew Parisi, its executive director.
“It’s an easy, impactful way to say thanks,” he said.
For active-duty military, letters “represent a feeling of home and the American way of life that can boost morale on a base. For veterans, especially those battling mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder, these letters have made an impact. They have influenced vets not to end their own lives,” Parisi said. Visit amillionthanks.org.
• Teach and talk: Both Babcock and Palazzolo agreed that schools don’t do enough to teach the Vietnam experience — how and why the war was fought and the decisions that were made — to children. That’s why veterans have a duty to speak up.
“I think Vietnam veterans owe it to themselves, their family, their unit and to American history to be willing to tell their story about their experiences in the Vietnam War,” Babcock said. “By many vets doing that, regardless of what their job was — all of them were important, even if some vets think they didn’t have an important job — the American public can learn more about this war.”