Vietnam veterans were officially “welcomed home” Tuesday morning at the National Cemetery in Biloxi, more than 40 years after the war ended in 1975.
The ceremony was emotional for many of the veterans gathered by the MIA/POW flagpole in the cemetery.
One woman was there carrying a photo of her husband. I overheard her tell someone that he had recently died. She was one of many who shed tears as the ceremony progressed.
I, too, have cried those very tears many, many times.
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My father was veteran of the Vietnam War. It was a source of great pride for him, but it also was the thing that destroyed his life.
We didn’t talk about the war much. I know he served two tours of duty in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 and he was in country during the Tet Offensive.
I know that he was an infantryman and a gunner, this according to discharge papers I found after he died. He was drafted at a very young age, and he was one of the few in his company that didn’t come home in a body bag.
My mother told me people called him a “baby killer” and tried to spit on him at an airport when he was flying home.
That’s about it; that’s pretty much all I know about my dad’s service in the U.S. Army. But I know plenty about the life he lived after Vietnam.
We didn’t go camping and hunting when I was a child. Dad just kind of blew it off and said he had been camping and hunting enough in his life and that he had no desire to hang out in the woods. It took me many years to understand this.
And then there was the drinking.
My dad worked hard and took care of his family and gave us everything we wanted. But he was also a functional alcoholic who became a lot less functional before his death.
As someone mentioned at Tuesday’s ceremony, there was no such thing as PTSD when Vietnam veterans returned home. They were just told to basically buck up and deal with it. There was little, if any, therapy and psychiatric help that went along with it.
So my dad found his peace of mind in a bottle, but that peace was always short-lived. There’s nothing peaceful about alcoholism. Eventually, it took his life. He was only 56 when he died on April 2, 2003. That’s about 10 years older than I am right now.
He’s another casualty of the war. It just happened to take about 33 years to kill him.
As “Taps” played at Tuesday’s ceremony, I just felt that same emptiness and anger to which I’m accustomed. Approximately 50,000 Americans died during the war. I wonder how many more died because their spirits were killed?
Welcoming the Vietnam veterans “home” some 50 years after the war isn’t going to heal those that have been scarred by the war, but it does recognize that these veterans made great sacrifices for our country. They should be proud of what they did, wherever they may be.
Jeff Clark is a staff writer for the Sun Herald.