50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War
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Memorial Day 2012 by Lt. Colonel Oliver North, USMC Retired - Common Sense Column
As a crowd of high-school students offloaded from the tour bus for a visit to “The Wall,” he yelled, “There are no good wars!” Hemmed-in on the crowded sidewalk, I tried to ignore his rant and noted the bus had a Pennsylvania license.
The “shouter” was far too young to have fought in Vietnam, and he was wearing a dirty T-shirt, ragged jeans – and Gucci loafers. He held a sheet of cardboard, hand-inscribed with the words, “I’m the 99%” on one side and “Help me, I’m Homeless” on the other.
While threading my way through the throng, I heard one of the clean-cut kids from the bus say, “If he’s a Vietnam War veteran, shouldn’t we help him?”
A well-intentioned youngster began digging through her purse to find some cash, but a U.S. Park Service Ranger approached and told the sign-bearer, “Move along.” The bedraggled petitioner complied, but only after spewing a string of four-letter expletives.
The Ranger, clearly discomfited by the foul language, looked at me and said, “That guy is a phony, right colonel?”
I could only nod, point toward the memorial to my fallen and missing comrades and say, “He wasn’t one of us.”
“The Wall” is like that. The V-shaped, black granite panels with 58,282 names inscribed upon them attract visitors like no other place in our nation’s capital.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the most visited site in Washington, DC – a city with more than a thousand museums, monuments, parks and public buildings named for great people and events.
In scores of visits to “The Wall,” over the last three decades, whether day or night, summer or winter, rain or shine, I have never been alone. Others have always been there when I arrived and departed – maintaining a constant vigil.
This week, I came to meet a friend with whom I served in that long ago, faraway war. Then, he was a U.S. Navy Medical Corpsman and I was a Rifle Platoon Commander. In “Kilo” Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, those of us who saw him in the midst of carnage knew him to be quiet, competent and courageous.
Though he saved many of our lives with his skill and bravery – and has Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to confirm both – I don’t recall knowing his given name – John – until after the war. To us he was simply, “Doc Fowler” – the man who headed into the gunfire when the call went out, “Corpsman up!”
We came to “The Wall” this week with a FOX News team for interviews that will air as part of our network’s special Memorial Day coverage. In the past we have honored our nation’s war dead from one of 141 national cemeteries around the United States or at one of 24 others on foreign soil.
But this year, our countrymen who pause from travel, shopping, sporting events and auto races on ‘the last Monday in May’ will see a very different observance: the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War.
For the 2.7 million Americans who fought for our nation in Southeast Asia, the Gold Star Families who lost loved ones there and those who still yearn to know “what happened” to the 1,350 still “unaccounted for,” Monday’s ceremony is a long-awaited requital for unacknowledged sacrifice. It’s an overdue, but welcome event.
What is less certain is whether this Commemoration can finally bring closure to the most polarizing armed conflict for Americans since the Civil War. Will it end the false mythology of the “Vietnam Vet” as a pot-headed marauder; a homeless, unemployed drop out who couldn’t “fit in” after coming home?
The “occupy” protester I confronted on my way to “The Wall” this week probably won’t be convinced by this single ceremony. It’s unlikely he will ever grasp the innate decency, unstinting perseverance, quiet courage and true humility of those whose names are engraved on those black granite panels.
There are no “good wars.” But there are good warriors. There are lots of “Viet Vets” – like “Doc” Fowler.
He came home from Vietnam badly wounded – but today he’s “Doctor Fowler” – and treating Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines from a new generation wounded while fighting another long war.
There are innumerable others, like Jim Lehnert, my radio operator. He walked beside me for endless miles in Vietnam. Jim came home bloodied, but finished his education, taught at Loyola University School of Dentistry – and today is a general dentist in the suburbs of Chicago.
Like most Vietnam War veterans, they are still giving more than they ever asked in return.
They aren’t “drop outs.”
They are American heroes – and I’m blessed to call them “friends.”
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