Vets want their story told accurately
SIKESTON - Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, veterans are hoping to clear up the past and avoid a repeat in the future.
April 30 is generally recognized as the end of the Vietnam War which took place from 1962-1975 for the United States. "That's when the North Vietnamese took over the city of Saigon and the resistance crumbled," said Col. George E. "Bud" Day of the Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation. "That's what most historians attribute the last day to be."
The Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation is a public service corporation formed to educate the public about the Vietnam War and the men and women who sacrificed to serve their country in Vietnam.
"It came together after last year's election when we realized that some parts of the press were bringing out those old stories about the Vietnam War where they claimed Vietnam veterans had performed some atrocities in South Vietnam ... (and) that it was U.S. policy authorized by the president down through the cabinet and the commanders in the field to do atrocities on innocent civilians - old men, women and children," Day said. "This was the same lie that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had put before Congress and the anti-war members of the House and Senate in 1970-71. We had George McGovern, Sen. Fulbright, Bobby Kennedy, Jane Fonda, and a number of those left-wingers were putting out the myth that we had committed atrocities as standard policy, the ordinary way of doing business in South Vietnam.
"That upset us and we decided we needed to form up some sort of formal group to rebut those false, misleading stories and set the record straight," Day continued. "A major goal of ours is to dispute the stories that have been published and have been put forward by both Jane Fonda and John Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We feel that those stories can not go unchallenged. There is no substantial evidence of any sort of policy of committing atrocities. That is absolutely false."
While local Vietnam veterans don't know much about the VVLF, they agree that they never witnessed or heard of any American policies as described by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"That was a myth," said Larry Floyd, Vietnam veteran and commander of the Sikeston American Legion. "We had no such orders to do that. ... I spent 21 months over there traveling rivers and stuff. You had to arrest people and deal with them in that way - but just go into a village and kill? No."
"I can only give you one person's perspective. I was there from February 1968 through November 1968," said Vietnam veteran Tom Austin of Sikeston. "I did not witness any type of atrocity that would even come close to anything that was alleged by the media. If anything, I saw the exact opposite - I saw GIs showing great constraint and compassion when it came to a combat situation that may have included civilian populations. There was a lot of thought put in to combat situations that may have involved civilian populations. At the time we did not know what we were up against - we weren't sure."
Day and the VVLF do not deny atrocities were committed by U.S. soldiers. Day recalled hearing about what is known as the My Lai incident in which a U.S. Army division led by Lt. William L. Calley invaded the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, an alleged Viet Cong stronghold, on March 16, 1968, during which nearly 350 civilians - women and children - were shot to death.
"I would have tried him myself if I was his commander," Day said.
But the same media who covered with relish alleged American atrocities had nothing to say about the Vietcong atrocities which were common, according to Day.
"It was routine for them to kill entire villages of people they thought might be sympathetic to the forces of South Vietnam," he said. "They would assassinate the village leader and all his family if there was any suspicion they were working with the South."
Journalists, however, apparently had an agenda that was more important to them than reporting the facts, he said. "Principle among those was Dan Rather, Morley Safer from CBS and Walter Cronkite - all were very pro-North Vietnamese. They wanted the North Vietnamese to win," Day recalled. "We called them the 'Communist Broadcasting System.'"
Floyd is among those who believe television had a negative influence on the public attitude toward the war.
"I think it harmed us. War is war and I don't think we needed people filming it," Floyd said. Most of the time, he said, it seemed as if citizens at home were seeing more of the war on TV than the soldiers in combat.
"When we came home there was no greeting - it's more like they shamed us," he said. "We had to do what we were told to do."
Austin said while he witnessed unpleasant receptions for Vietnam veterans on the journey home, in Sikeston "we just blended in to the environment - not a lot of hoopla, not a lot of flag waving."
Anti-war protesters were something Austin just chose to walk away from. "My standpoint was, I had been there, I had done what I was told to do, and I didn't have to defend anything I did to anybody I met," he said.
Despite having a less-than-enthusiastic welcome home themselves, Austin said Sikeston's Vietnam veterans have been proud to support veterans returning from the wars that followed Vietnam.
"I would defy anybody to show me a Vietnam veteran who was not out waving flags when the 1140th came home - we appreciate what they did and we're very proud of what they did," he said. "I'm proud to be an American."
Looking back on the war with 30 years of perspective, Floyd said: "For all we done, all we lost, I don't think we gained a thing over there. I think we should have stayed in a while longer. It was kind of a draw. I truly believe we should have stayed in a while longer. We didn't accomplish much; our hands were tied. I'm hoping this deal in Iraq doesn't turn out to be the same thing - we're losing lives every day.
"I just hope we have a better outcome with Iraq," he added. "Bring our people home."