Tuesday, March 29, is Vietnam Veterans Day. We as a nation will recognize the service and sacrifice of the 2.8 million Americans who served in a war where more than 57,000 of them lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands were wounded. Since the end of the war in 1975 and continuing today, even more lives, including my brother-in-law's, have been lost to the horrific effects of Agent Orange.
The Vietnam War was the central event of the post-World War II generation, my generation, and deeply divided the nation. There was great confusion between the war and the warrior. Americans wanted to forget the war, and consequently, those who served there were never recognized, much less thanked, for their service to the country.
In New York City, a small, dedicated group of Vietnam Veterans came together in the early ’80s to form a Commission appointed by the Mayor (Ed Koch, a former WWII Army sergeant). It was my great honor to serve as Co-Chairman. Our mission was simple: to ensure that Vietnam Veterans, like every other generation of Veterans, would not be forgotten, rather they would be properly honored. Our motto was “It’s Time.”
Together, we built a stunning memorial in lower Manhattan, with excerpts of letters sent home from Vietnam etched onto a glass wall. At the top of the wall in large letters, there are the words of a poem written by Major Michael Davis O’Donnell of Springfield, Illinois three months before he died when his helicopter crashed and burned on the way to rescue a LRRP team in Cambodia. Here is the full poem which I hope you and your family will take to heart, as we commemorate Vietnam Veterans Day 2022. The last stanza of this moving poem is engraved at the top of the memorial. It is larger and italicized below:
If you are able/save them a place/inside of you/and save one backward glance
when you are leaving/for the places they can no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say/you loved them,/though you may or may not have always.
Take what they have left/and what they have taught you/with their dying/and keep it with your own.
And in the time/when men decide and feel safe/to call the war insane,
Take one moment to embrace/those gentle heroes/you left behind.