I am writing this column on Veterans Day, a day for celebrating all of the men and women who have sacrificed for our country by serving in our armed forces. It is also a day for sober reflection, reflection on how we have treated these veterans over the years. It is this which I want to discuss briefly here.
I was a college student during the Vietnam War. That war was a very troubling war in many ways. It divided the nation. Millions of Americans supported the war; millions — including a large number of students and young people — did not. The issue of whether the war was just and whether the United States should have been involved in the first place was complicated by the draft. It is hard for young people today to remember a time when the government drafted young men at 18 to go fight in a foreign land against their will.
The inequalities in the draft process made the situation worse. For much of the war, students who were in college were exempted from the draft as long as they maintained passing grades. This was also a time when fewer people went to college so that the draft fell disproportionately on those who could not afford college.
Student protests against the war erupted across the nation and this enraged many older Americans who had fought in World War II and in Korea. Generation was pitted against generation. But still many young Americans volunteered to go and fight for their country.
But something terrible happened. Anger against the war turned into anger against the military and those who served. Soldiers coming home were not treated as heroes as they are today. They were made the objects of scorn and ridicule. One rarely heard the phrase “thank you for your service” in those days. Instead soldiers and veterans were often taunted if they wore their uniforms in public. Many had been injured physically and psychologically in the war and neither the public nor the government provided the kind of comfort and treatment they needed. They still don’t do enough.
When the war ended, the American public just wanted to forget that it had ever taken place. Many returning veterans were ignored or, worse still, scorned and forgotten. A whole generation of American veterans were denied what they deserved — and still deserve: to be treated as honored heroes and receive all that they deserved.
Since 9/11, public opinion about the military has changed. Today returning veterans are greeted with thanks for their service to the country. Even those opposed to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan honor our veterans. Veterans are still not given all they deserve by the government, which is a national scandal, but, hopefully, things are getting better and veterans will get all the help and benefits they deserve.
But it is important that we never forget that this wasn’t the case for Vietnam veterans. Many, of course, came back and led successful and happy lives. But not all. You can still see the cost of that war in the faces of homeless vets across the United States. It is too late to help those veterans who have died. It is not too late to help those who are still among us. Perhaps, this year, each of us can do more to thank not only our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan but also those who served in other wars, including those served in Vietnam.