By Crispin Burke
Best Defense guest columnist
Fred Castaneda, 63, reaches into a well-worn day planner and removes a bumper sticker he carries with him everywhere. Bearing the motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America, it reads:
"Never again shall one generation of Americans abandon another."
Fred is one of nearly three million Americans who served in the Southeast Asia theater during the War. Enlisting in the Army at age 21 to help pay for college, Fred served a tour of duty as a grenadier and a machine gunner in Vietnam, initially with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and eventually with the Americal Division.
But though Fred served his nation honorably, he hid his service from his co-workers at IBM for nearly two decades.
2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, one of the most painful episodes in American history. The war itself took place in the midst of tremendous social unrest in America, with service members often finding themselves convenient scapegoats for the counter-cultural rebellion of the era.
In the years following the War, Vietnam veterans fell victim to a slew of negative stereotypes involving post-traumatic stress, homelessness, and substance abuse. And while those problems were certainly real, they belie the fact that many Vietnam veterans have gone forward to lead happy, successful lives.
Today's veterans return to applause and adulation from a grateful nation; but not our Vietnam veterans. Some returned home in taxi cabs, clad in civilian clothes. Others shoved their belongings into garbage bags, rather than be seen with the distinctive government-issue duffel bag. Many returned as individuals -- not as cohesive units as they do today -- and they didn't enjoy the veteran support programs today's veterans take for granted.
Four decades ago, Joe Bray, now the San Antonio President of BBVA Compass Bank, served as a military policeman in South Vietnam. At the end of his tour -- December 21st, 1971 -- he boarded a plane bound for the United States, filled with service members from a mishmash of different units. In less than 72 hours, he was discharged from the Army, and sent home in civilian clothes for his home in Chicago. He pushed the entire Vietnam experience to the back of his mind, thinking of his service only as a "lost year." He never even unpacked his bags until years later, when he discovered his awards still sealed in a plastic bag.
After the First Gulf War, however, many Vietnam veterans became more forthcoming about their service; and after 9/11, Vietnam veterans were among the most ardent supporters of our service members and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But though Vietnam veterans distinguished themselves both on the battlefield and in their post-war lives, no one has paid tribute to their service. No one had tried to right the wrong. But during this commemorative year, many military installations attempted to finally do justice to our Vietnam veterans. Just this past week, Fort Sam Houston became the first military installation to be recognized as a 50th Anniversary Commemorative partner; likewise for the local San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. In a ceremony held on Wednesday, U.S. military personnel and community leaders lined the streets of Fort Sam Houston to cheer our nation's Vietnam veterans. It was a long-overdue gesture, but one well-received by the hundreds of Vietnam veterans who showed up to this historic event.
This Veterans Day, I would ask that all our post-9/11 defer their accolades to that generation of veterans who never received so much as a pat on the back upon returning home. We should take their slogan to heart-that this generation of veterans shall not abandon our predecessors. This weekend, I ask that we take a moment to shake the hand of a Vietnam veteran and finally tell them, on behalf of a grateful nation, that we are proud of their service.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.