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Reflections on Vietnam, 30 years later

This weekend marks a historical milestone— 30 years since the fall of Saigon.
American's To Mark 30th Anniversary Of The End Of The Vietnam War
A group of schoolchildren reach out to touch the list of names of Americans killed in Vietnam at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on April 29, 2005 in Washington DC. April 30 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

This weekend marks a historical milestone— 30 years since the fall of Saigon. The last sortie of Operation Frequent Wind came in the morning when a U.S. helicopter lifted from the roof of our embassy in Vietnam on April 30, 1975. As the chopper flew over Saigon one final time to an aircraft carrier out at sea, the United States had finally ended its military involvement in Vietnam. It was over. An abrupt end with no fanfare, confetti, or parade. 

The events of that day came to symbolize so much of what took place during the ten years prior as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Hundreds, if not, thousands of Vietnamese desperately tried to reach safety at the U.S. Embassy. Some of them made it. Most did not.  Those who did make it and boarded one of our helicopters were the lucky ones. Those left behind faced an uncertain future as the communists took hold of the entire country.  Executions, repatriation camps, and life sentences in prison were in store for those who sympathized with the south.

Vietnam— used now as a word to sum up years of indecision, body bags, and domestic turmoil —was a key turning point in our society. It made us coarser and more cynical as a people. The war was bookended by the assassination of JFK and the Watergate scandal, and within it, the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the shootings at Kent State, and the riots in Chicago and Watts.  And more than being a quagmire no politician or general had the answer for, Vietnam took more from us than money, bombs, and power— it took over 58,000 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice.  And to those who are not here with us today to play catch with their kids, light up the backyard barbeque, or kiss their wives on the cheek— they seem to be the ones who are sometimes forgotten.

They were thousands of our youngest, best and brightest with untold futures, who perished on foreign soil for duty, honor, and country.  And as the dead may be, at times, forgotten, all too often, the Vietnam veteran alive and well today still seeks to be remembered. Unlike the veteran from WWII who is revered today (as he should be), the Vietnam veteran still combats the decisions made by men in power who should have known better. Hollywood portrayals haven't helped the cause either. "Saving Private Ryan," "Midway," and "Band of Brothers" exalted the bravery and conviction of our boys in WWII, and there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever.  But for every "Saving Private Ryan," there's a "Platoon" or "Born on the 4th of July," which make the Vietnam vet seem like a crazy loon or ungrateful loudmouth, who is mad at the world and can't straighten out his life. The only positive movie about Vietnam was the 2002 release of "We Were Soldiers." It actually offered a back-story before showing the viewer the awful brutality of warfare.

This reminds me of a story of a certain Vietnam veteran's homecoming 37 years ago. When I was working at a Boston radio station back in 2000, we put together an audio documentary of seven people's reflections on Vietnam for the 25th observance of the fall of Saigon. Four veterans, a widow of a MIA pilot, a journalist, and a doctor, who practiced in Saigon, gave very personal and heartfelt thoughts on what they were feeling 25 years after Saigon. 

One of the veterans was a man from Roxbury, Massachusetts, and his name is Ernie Washington.  His “coming home” was April 4, 1968. Washington, an African-American, arrived at Logan Airport in his Marine uniform. After receiving odd looks from many, he tried to flag down a taxi to take him home to Roxbury. No such luck. Dr. King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee that evening and no cab was going to go into the black part of town, which was in upheaval. Washington had to settle for mass transit. So there he was, in his military uniform taking public transportation home after being wounded in war and serving his country with bravery and distinction. Some hero's welcome, huh?  Not being attuned to what was going on at home while in the jungle, Washington quickly learned what was happening in the street and how people felt about Vietnam.

Thirty years and one week after V-E Day and the end of WWII in Europe came the fall of Saigon. But unlike the joy in the streets across America in 1945, the prevailing feeling in 1975 was that the end was long overdue. Now, thirty years later, the world, including Vietnam, has turned into a much different place. U.S. airlines fly into Ho Chi Minh City. One of our naval ships docked in their waters 2 years ago.  Plus, the Vietnamese government has made a genuine effort to openly attempt to finalize the POW/MIA issue.  With a population of 82 million— almost half of that number born after the war— Vietnamese memories of bullets and battles are few. Perhaps that's the simple reason for the healing and renewal.

But for us, we live in an instant society. E-mail, the Internet, cable TV, iPods, cell phones, DVDs, Playstations, and Palm Pilots.  Everything must be quick or else it must be antiquated.  The pace is furious and frenetic. We hardly ever stop to pause and reflect anymore.  It takes an epic event to rally us together. And then 6 to 8 months later, we're right back on the fast track. 

But, if you can, take a brief moment and remember that 30 years ago, thousands of your countrymen had given their lives for you in a small, but certain way.  And everywhere across our land, there are many Vietnam veterans who do remember what happened at places like Ia Drang, Pleiku, Khe Sahn, Hue City, Da Nang, Dong Hoa, Con Thien, Long Tan, and Xuan Loc.  So, to Ernie Washington and all those who served in country and elsewhere around the world during the Vietnam era, thank you for your service.  

At the end of your moment of reflection, think of the more than 58,000 names etched into the black granite “V” near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Wall stands as the perpetual reminder for all of us to recall and honor those who left their souls in Vietnam half a world away, half a lifetime ago. Their memory will indeed live forever.   

Greg Ebben is an associate producer on "Hardball," and has been interested in the history of the Vietnam War since his studies at Boston College in the early 1990s.  Greg produced a radio documentary hosted by MSNBC contributor, Mike Barnicle, for WTKK-FM (96.9) in Boston in 2000, which was nominated for an Achievement in Radio (A.I.R.) award.