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What we still owe our Vietnam veterans

Four soldiers sit at a table in South Vietnam, 1972

There’s been a fair amount of excitement over Ken Burns’ new documentary series, this one an 18-hour blockbuster on the Vietnam War.

Burns, who grew up in Ann Arbor, long ago became America’s tribal storyteller, the man who helps us find out who we are, whether the topic is jazz or baseball or the Civil War.

Some years ago, I realized with a start that for most of my college students, Vietnam was ancient history. Most knew little about it, which is perhaps not surprising, given that for years America’s longest war was a subject we longed to forget.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

More than three million Americans served in Vietnam, hundreds of thousands from Michigan. I wasn’t one. I had student deferments, and then I sweated it out the night draft lottery numbers were given out. There were only five numbers left when I got mine, and it was a lucky one. It meant I would never have to go.

Like Ken Burns, who I met for the first time last fall, I don’t know what I would have done had I been called up. That would have been in 1971, long after anyone believed in the purpose of the war, or that we had any chance for a result that resembled “winning.”

But kids I went to high school with died. Fifty eight thousand in all, 2,665 from Michigan. The last American solider to die in Vietnam before the cease-fire took effect was a colonel from Menominee. His name and all the Michigan names are on a wall at an American Legion post in South Haven. Nobody likes to say they died for nothing, though they essentially did.

Two years after we left, South Vietnam collapsed and the Communist North unified the country. Today, we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam, visit on package tours, and sell them Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, many of the more than 200,000 Michigan Vietnam vets who are still alive are struggling to cope with life. Mike Sand, a now-retired industrial arts teacher from Fraser, is a former president of Michigan’s famous Chapter 9 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. When I last talked with him a couple weeks ago, Ken Burns’ film didn’t come up.

Instead, Sand was scrambling around because a man named Nou Xoua Kue had died. He was a native of Laos and had fought the communists with the Americans during the war, and then came here. He had wanted a 21-gun-salute at his funeral.

Eventually, by working the phones, a group called the Macomb County Ritual Honor Guard agreed to conduct the ceremony, which took place on September 11.

Mike Sand, I knew, would have done as much had the deceased been a veteran of any war. The Vietnam veterans of Chapter 9 have a motto: “Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another.” For years, they’ve wanted to establish a Veterans’ Memorial Park somewhere near downtown Detroit.

They’ve been getting the run-around from the city ever since they first pitched the idea. What I think is that Vietnam divided this country as nothing ever has and helped begin the process of polarization we are now in. And none of it is the fault of the kids we shipped over there half a century ago.

We owe it to ourselves not to forget, and not to abandon them either.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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