MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Richard Nixon, 37th president of the United States, told a reporter of the New York Times that, “No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.”
The Vietnam War was the first American conflict in which every American citizen had the realities of a war with no front lines beamed directly into their living room, uncensored and left open for debate. It was a war where a more liberal America, stirring from civil unrest and in a time of social change, looked at our men and women in uniform with a scruitinizing eye.
“I did a 13-month tour in Vietnam with 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division,” said Bill Whittington, a Vietnam War veteran. “I came back with injuries from exposure to Agent Orange and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but when we came off that plane... they all jeered at us.”
A highly political, socially-conscious conflict that claimed nearly 60,000 lives with an additional 304,000 wounded, the Vietnam War is a dark chapter in America’s history that is not fondly remembered. However, it is remembered nevertheless, and the people of Onslow County will see to it that it is never forgotten.
“I think this is the best thing they’ve ever done here,” said Whittington. “And that’s put up this memorial so everyone on these glass walls will always be with us.”
April 30th saw the congregation of service men and women, friends and families come together to remember those who have gone and not returned home during the annual Vietnam Recognition Day held at the Vietnam War memorial at the Lejeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, N.C.
Surrounded by the tens of thousands of names of American service members lost in the jungles of Vietnam and amid the powerful pillars within, attendees sat as a family for the solemn occasion.
“When a Vietnam veteran returned home, they came back to a land where groups of citizens refused to recognize their sacrifices,” said Mike Carr, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America - Jon Panarese Chapter 654. “Today, we welcome home those who returned and remember those who did not.”
During the ceremony, a proclamation from Jacksonville Mayor Sammy Phillips was read, declaring April 30, 2011 as Vietnam veteran recognition day. Afterward, retired Sgt. Maj. Mac McGee, the guest speaker for the event, took to the podium. As opposed to retelling his experiences in Vietnam, he chose to elaborate his point that the Vietnam War should not be forgotten in a more direct way.
“I almost declined being the guest speaker for this event because last year’s speaker left some big boots to fill,” said McGee. “However, instead to speaking about what I did over there, I’d like to read a poem I wrote a few years ago about those of us who came back and those of us who didn’t.”
McGee then went on to read the poetic narrative that struck the hearts of many in attendance. As McGee continued, the quivering in his voice betrayed how, as he read, he was not concentrating on the paper before him, but looking back through the years, not so much reading the paper as he was telling the audience what he was seeing.
When finished, McGee and Carr posted a wreath in front of the audience in remembrance of those not present. As the lone bugler slowly blew out the notes of “Taps” and the 21-gun salute was firing, many of those in the audience did the same as McGee, looking back into the annals of their military service in the jungles and rice paddies of a foreign land. The bright morning sun danced off the tears forming in their eyes as their steady hands were locked either to the brim of their covers or over their hearts.
As the ceremony was concluded, the assembly broke off to search for their respective loved ones upon the glass walls, touching kissed fingers to the names.
“Ah, there he is,” said Donna-Marie Crowell, associate representative for the North Carolina State Council, pointing to the name ‘Kohlrusch, William Frederick’ on the wall. “My uncle, a pilot in the Navy in Vietnam. He’s always with me - I’m so proud of him.”
Whether favorable or not, won or lost, the war in Vietnam nevertheless claimed the lives of American men and women in defense of freedom. You don’t have to like war or the places it’s fought, but just remember that the freedom we as Americans enjoy is because of the selfless sacrifices service men and women commit to every day, even when citizens turned their backs on them. We celebrate those who come back and always remember those who have not.