[ Editor's note: The following is a guest commentary by Joe Galloway, the long-time war correspondent who co-authored "We Were Soldiers Once-And Young" with Lt. Gen. (ret) Hal Moore.]
Wednesday, March 29, was National Vietnam Veterans Day, and communities across the country said a heart-felt WELCOME HOME to the men and women they sent off to war half a century ago, but forgot to honor when they came home.
Those communities are helped and encouraged in welcoming home their veterans by the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration project, chartered by Congress and operated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, not just on March 29 but every day for a decade that runs from 2015 through 2025.
I have the very real pleasure of working for the Commemoration as a consultant, travelling the country doing film interviews with Vietnam veterans of all ranks and all branches of service. The stories we are capturing bring laughter and tears. For many of the men and women this is the first time they have opened up and told their very personal stories of going to war.
From every veteran interviewed I learn something about the Vietnam War that I didn’t know, even after doing four tours covering Vietnam as a war correspondent and reading the hundreds of books on that war of our youth that fill the shelves of my library.
It is a matter of pleasure…and pride…and tears, capturing their stories. I have a feeling that we must capture their stories before they are lost forever.
We are dragging up memories that are fading fast. The Vietnam War Commemoration is healing old wounds, and I can't think of anything I would rather be doing at this point in my life.
A former Army company commander in San Francisco recalls being ordered to take his troops into Hue City during the horrendous battles of Tet 1968. Darkness fell before he could get his company across a canal bridge, and they were ordered to spend the night near the bridge and cross the canal the next morning.
The captain awoke at first light and saw, reaching out of the earth beside his head, a human hand. He and his men began digging and soon unearthed the body that had beckoned to him. And then another and yet another. They dug up over 180 bodies in that mass grave, most of them with hands bound and a single executioner's bullet in the back of their heads. Among them were four French nuns.
Joe Galloway in Danang, Vietnam, in 1965.
This was the first discovery of mass graves around the old Imperial capital of Hue that eventually would reveal more than 3,000 Vietnamese civil servants, policemen, soldiers who had been rounded up and executed by North Vietnamese Army and Communist Viet Cong when they seized Hue.
The Army captain carried the memory of that beckoning hand and the sight of all those bodies with him for nearly half a century. Now he could tell his story.
To date we have more than 326 one- to two-hour interviews in the can and we are continuing to schedule the trips and the interviews with the veterans. We can only capture the stories of a relatively few veterans but they speak for the three million men and women who served in the Vietnam War – and for the five million more who wore the uniform and served elsewhere around the world at that time.
The interviews will eventually be shared, unedited, with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project where they will be available to researchers for decades to come. Long after the last Vietnam veteran has gone to rest their voices can still be heard.
During a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC on Memorial Day in 2012 President Obama said: "One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam – most particularly how we treated our troops who served there. You came home and were denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame…and we resolve that it will not happen again."
Key to the Commemoration's achieving its primary mission of welcoming home these veterans is the hometown-centered Commemorative Partner Program. To date more than 10,000 organizations at all levels have committed to holding two events per year recognizing and honoring Vietnam veterans and their families in their communities.
If your organization would like to join the no-cost Commemorative Partner program visit our website at www.vietnamwar50th.com for further information.