Memorial Day: We are what we were

Vietnam era service medalMost of the men my age recognize the item to the left. It’s a Vietnam-era service medal, to be worn only by those who served during that awful conflict. It’s hard for people like me to call it a war, because you get into wars to win, and we certainly weren’t there for that (can you say “Nuke Hanoi?”).

I have this little box full of memories from my time in the service (U.S. Coast Guard, 1965–1970), and the only time I ever get the urge to go through it is on Memorial Day. It wasn’t easy to serve your country back then, because the country, it seemed, didn’t want our service. By “the country,” I’m referring not to the government but to the people. Yes, the people.

If you’re a young person, you’ve heard the stories. Somehow, we were the bad guys, the symbol of the fear everybody felt. The draft was in full bloom, and again, we were drafted to serve in a war that wasn’t a war. Today, servicemen and women are looked upon with respect and admiration. They are recognized and even applauded in public places, but for us, removing the uniform was a necessary part of feeling like a human being on the streets of the U.S.A.

World War II and Korean War vets extended the hand of friendship and camaraderie, but publicly, we were scorned.

I think that one of the reasons young soldiers, sailors and Marines are so respected today is because of what we, their parents, went through back then. Service men and women who die in Iraq are heroes, but that honor was never extended to my friends and contemporaries who were butchered in Vietnam. We’re darned sure not going to let that happen again.

One of the most famous lines from General Patton is, “ bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” So today, as we remember (and I hope we remember) those who’ve died to preserve the freedoms that we enjoy in this country, let’s also give a few thoughts to what it means to be at war.

It would be nice to not have to have a Memorial Day some day.


  1. What a great post. You have my utmost respect, sir.

  2. I remember my flight to Saigon in 1970 originated in Oakland and stopped for refueling in Hawaii. Decked out in our brand new fatigues and jungle boots we were allowed to leave the plane and stretch our legs. As we walked through the terminal I couldn’t help noticing people giving us a wide berth. I even saw a mother grab her young daughter to shield her from us. I was young and naïve but that reaction from my fellow countrymen still haunts me today. Thank God the times and attitudes have changed.

  3. You hit a nerve, and Mike reinforced the pain. It was suggested by our commander that “when going home on leave, don’t wear your Blues. People tend to spit at you.” We were proud young men (with a few women standing by our side), and I’m willing to bet everyone one of us still recall the treatment from our countrymen when they found out we were in the military. Vietnam era vets never received a nod of thanks, except in a near-condescending fashion.


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