Coming home: Vietnam (and other) vets
"Coming Home"--it was the title of a 1978 movie about returning Vietnam vets, starring (of all people, adding insult to injury) Jane Fonda. I saw it and don't remember it very well, but I thought of it when I heard of the following event: Operation Homecoming, a large celebration in honor of Vietnam vets that will be happening this week in Branson, Missouri (hat tip: Michelle Malkin and Third Wave Dave). The "Operation Homecoming" website refers to the event as, "The homecoming you never received."
I was recently watching some TV footage of the celebratory homecomings of several Iraq war veterans, and I was struck by the differences between their experiences and those of returning Vietnam vets. I certainly remember the latter, from my own personal history--I greeted my boyfriend alone, with no fanfare, and he came on a regular commercial flight. Of course, this wasn't his initial return flight from Vietnam, the details of which I don't know (it occurred base-to-base), but that certainly wasn't a public event, either, and family were not present. If a band was on hand, I didn't hear about it.
Why the difference? I'm not an expert on this, but one explanation that readily comes to mind is that there were far fewer National Guard members fighting in Vietnam than in Iraq. National Guard units are, by their very nature, geographic, and they usually stay together as they serve. They leave in units and they return in units, so the families tend to know each other and to live nearby and form a sort of support group. Obviously, in that situation, the homecoming can be unified, and it most certainly will involve a ceremony of some kind.
I think it's similar with the regular military in today's all-volunteer army. There is a great deal of solidarity compared to the typical Vietnam vet, although in the case of the regular military of today (as opposed to the Guard of today) it's not initially geographic--they come from different areas rather than a single one. However, there are a larger number of men and women with spouses and children who live near the base, and who know each other; and the return tends to also be in a unit, to that same base.
In Vietnam it was different for the draftees, who constituted a huge portion of those who served. As best I can recall, they were drafted one by one, trained with people they didn't know, and were then plugged into fighting units that already existed when they went to Vietnam. Service there was time-limited: one year, virtually to the day. There was a revolving crew of people in a unit, all (or at least most) with different beginning and ending dates for their own personal tour of duty.
If you could survive that year intact, it was over for you--you went home and you were safe. Of course, there were people who flew with you on the transport plane back to the States, but they weren't necessarily those you had known you and served with you. You came back to a base (as I recall, usually in California--Fort Ord perhaps?) to be debriefed. Then you were given leave to see your parents and other relatives and friends. Usually there were only a few months left of your service--my boyfriend spent them training new draftees.
It was all very quiet and individual. Returning vets usually wore their uniforms to fly (they got huge discounts if they did), but they flew on commercial aircraft, and they flew alone. I met my returning boyfriend in New York at Kennedy Airport (or was it still Idylwild back then?) in July of 1969, almost exactly thirty-six years ago. Our reunion was emotional, but it was solitary. No brass bands--not that, at the time, we wanted any, and I didn't even notice their absence. After all, by that time the war was considered a tragic mistake, nothing to be proud of. My personal experience does not include anyone making rude remarks or gestures to us, but I remember getting some funny looks in the airport as we walked through it with my boyfriend in his uniform.
But he was only too happy to take off that uniform, both physically and metaphorically--although, in a larger sense, he never did take it off completely; the experience affected him greatly, probably for the rest of his life. He didn't want to talk about it, either. We broke up some months later over different issues, and we never really did talk much about his Vietnam experiences, expect for a few incidents he described to me. But I know that, at the time, the lack of a big celebratory homecoming didn't seem worthy of note to either of us.
World War II was different from Vietnam, too, as were other previous wars. These were wars in which the military, including the draftees, were in "for the duration" unless they were wounded or shell-shocked. There were many people who returned as virtual strangers to their families, because of the length of the separation as well as the terrible and intense experiences they'd had.
Today's volunteer and career military have far more contact with their families while overseas, as do the Guard (e-mail, for example, rather than the terribly inefficient--although more easily saved--snail-mail of yesteryear). Tours of duty are no longer for the duration ( I believe the turning point was Vietnam in this respect). They are long, but not endless. But the "for the duration" rule had an important aspect that affected homecomings--it meant that, when homecomings did occur, they occurred all at once, and in the context of a celebration: VE Day, general jubilation. No lack of brass bands on that day!
So, these present-day homecoming celebrations for Iraq vets are a way to redress what is now recognized as a huge and unique problem (one of many) that occurred in the conduct of the Vietnam War and the treatment of its returning veterans. In a conscious effort, people are trying to recognize the sacrifice of the troops who served in Iraq, even though the war isn't over and we're not celebrating the equivalent of VE Day. That's what the proliferation of yellow ribbons and car decals and all those "Support Our Troops" signs are about. Even though some of it may seem self-serving and hypocritical--especially coming from those who are strongly against the war and who may even seem at times to be doing everything in their power to sabotage it--I think it comes from a good impulse, and that impulse originates in the memories of those strangely muted Vietnam vet homecomings.
"Operation Homecoming" is an even greater attempt to redress the absence of a homecoming celebration for Vietnam vets. It may be too little, too late; but it is something nevertheless. Ever since the 2004 Presidential campaign and the nomination of John Kerry, we seem destined to rehash these old battles. Perhaps this time we'll get it right--and, if so, it's something we can actually thank him for. The wheels of justice may indeed grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.