Vietnam Vets – The Warriors No One Wanted to Thank
When veterans returned from Vietnam, they didn't often hear the phrase “Thank you for your service.” But now, Pittsburgh veterans think people are learning to separate the war from the warrior.
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Vietnam Veterans Lou Nudi and Ray Amelio traveled to Vietnam as part of a 14-day tour sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Inc. to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
In The History Channel’s “Unsung Heroes: The Battle of Khe Sanh,” Vietnam is described as a teenager’s war: “Its soldier stepped straight out of a childhood played in the golden age that was America in the early 1960s.”
That was true for Oakland resident Terry Michel, who was just 18 when he enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1965. A year later he was stationed near Bien Hoa Air Base, about 16 miles from Saigon. He served two tours.
But when he returned home, he wasn’t allowed to join the VFW without a sponsor.
Ray Amelio belongs to The Veterans Breakfast Club, which along with the VVI Breakfast Club offers those who served in Vietnam a place to gather.
“When I told the commander that I didn’t know any of the members, he just shrugged his shoulders,” he says. “The truth is, they didn’t want us coming in, maybe because we didn’t want our war like they wanted theirs.”
Since the first wave of veterans began coming back from Iraq, the phrase “Thank you for your service” has become ubiquitous. In a piece he wrote for Mother Jones magazine in 2014, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning called the barrage of thank yous the “endless theme of the post-9/11 era.” Perhaps we’ve over-compensated for the fact that Vietnam veterans waited decades to hear someone utter that phrase, but Fanning brings up another point that no one seems to talk about: The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion weren’t exactly “eager to claim the country’s defeated veterans of a disastrous war as their own.”
George Coppola, who grew up in the Hill District and lives in Collier Township now, was 18 in 1967 when he shipped out to Vietnam to serve on the Coast Guard Cutter Campbell. What surprised him when he came home was not that most of his friends wouldn’t talk to him — “They were against the war,” he says — but that he was rebuffed by the VFW, where he was told, “We don’t want your kind here.” “Now when people see me wearing my Vietnam Veterans cap, they thank me for my service or welcome me home. It’s like we’ve done a complete 180.”
Navy veteran Chuck Giovannitti, who grew up in Brookline and lives in Whitehall, remembers that when he came back from Vietnam in 1968, “no one wanted to talk about what you did.” Then in 2005, Giovannitti got his belated “thanks for your service” from a young man he met on an elevator at a hotel in St. Louis, where he was attending a reunion of crew members who had served on the USS William B. Pratt. “He was the first person who ever said that to me.”
Etched in white against the reflective black granite surface of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., are the names of more than 58,000 servicemen and women killed or missing in action. Unlike other memorials scattered throughout Washington, The Wall invites participation. It’s a visceral experience; the largest panels begin well below ground level, requiring those who visit to negotiate the gradually sloping terrain as if entering a grave.
On Veteran’s Day in November 2017, members of Vietnam Veterans Inc. (vietnamveteransinc.com) made the trip from Pittsburgh to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The mood was noticeably different than it was 34 years ago when the organization made the same trip for the dedication of the bronze statue of three soldiers by sculptor Frederick Hart, commissioned to stand near The Wall.
The National Mall was awash in a sea of green that day in 1984 as men milled about in jungle fatigues, camouflage or bits and pieces of uniforms saved for reasons known only to themselves. There were bikers sporting ponytails and tattoos. One group of vets wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Southeast Asia War Games, Class of ’68.”
Some displayed medals they had once been ashamed to wear.
One veteran compared being in Vietnam to being raped. “You know how the rape victim tends to suppress the incident [thinking] people regard her as if she’s dirty or unclean?” he said. “That’s how Vietnam vets have felt for years.”
That sentiment rang true back then when a generation soured on patriotism wore the decade since Vietnam like a thin layer of scar tissue over images of body counts and body bags, of Mai Lai and Tet, and of Kent State, the tragic denouement of the anti-war movement.
This past November, however, there was reserved seating for the veterans, whom former Secretary of Defense and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel called the senior statesmen of the veteran’s community.
Hagel acknowledged that recognition came too late for many Vietnam veterans. “But look around you,” he told the assembled crowd. “It’s here today.”
Maya Lin, the architect who designed The Wall when she was just 21, was also on the program that afternoon. “My impulse was to cut open the earth and polish the earth’s open sides,” she said.
She recalled an encounter with an angry Vietnam veteran at The Wall the night before it was dedicated. When he screamed at her, she knew that The Wall was starting to work, allowing him to experience rage, pain and grief. “The Wall is not like other memorials,” she explained. “You meet here to feel something deeply.”