Tuesday, December 10, 2013
David Dishneau and Jay Reeves / The Associated Press
The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 40 years ago Friday, and the date holds great meaning for many who fought the war, protested it or otherwise lived it.
In this March 29, 1973, photo, Camp Alpha, Uncle Sam's out processing center, was chaos in Saigon. Lines of bored soldiers snaked through customs and briefing rooms. As the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 40 years ago, angry protesters still awaited them at home. North Vietnamese soldiers took heart from their foes' departure, and South Vietnamese who had helped the Americans feared for the future.
Former North Vietnamese prisoner of war James H. Warner, 72, of Rohrersville, Md., says his 5-1/2 years of forced labor and interrogation reinforced his conviction that the United States was right to confront the spread of communism.
While the fall of Saigon two years later is remembered as the final day of the Vietnam War, many had already seen their involvement in the war finished – and their lives altered – by March 29, 1973.
U.S. soldiers leaving the country feared angry protesters at home. North Vietnamese soldiers took heart from their foes' departure, and South Vietnamese who had helped the Americans feared for the future.
Many veterans are encouraged by changes they see. The U.S. has a volunteer military these days, not a draft, and the troops coming home aren't derided for their service. People know what PTSD stands for, and they're insisting that the government takes care of soldiers suffering from it and other injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Below are the stories of a few of the people who experienced a part of the Vietnam War firsthand.
'MORE INTERESTED IN GETTING BACK'
Dave Simmons of West Virginia was a corporal in the U.S. Army who came back from Vietnam in the summer of 1970. He said he didn't have specific memories about the final days of the war because it was something he was trying to put behind him.
"We were more interested in getting back, getting settled into the community, getting married and getting jobs," Simmons said.
He said he was proud to serve and would again if asked. But rather than proudly proclaim his service when he returned from Vietnam, the Army ordered him to get into civilian clothes as soon as he arrived in the U.S. The idea was to avoid confrontations with protestors.
"When we landed, they told us to get some civilian clothes, which you had to realize we didn't have, so we had to go in airport gift shops and buy what we could find," Simmons said.
Simmons noted that when the troops return today, they are often greeted with great fanfare in their local communities, and he's glad to see it.
"I think that's what the general public has learned – not to treat our troops the way they treated us," Simmons said.
Simmons is now helping organize a Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day in Charleston that will take place Saturday.
"Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another. We stick with that," said Simmons, president of the state council of the Vietnam Veterans of America. "We go to the airport. ... We're there when they leave. We're there when they come home. We support their families when they're gone. I'm not saying that did not happen to the Vietnam vet, but it wasn't as much. There was really no support for us."
A RISING PANIC
Tony Lam was 36 on the day the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam. He was a young husband and father, but most importantly, he was a businessman and U.S. contractor furnishing dehydrated rice to South Vietnamese troops. He also ran a fish meal plant and a refrigerated shipping business that exported shrimp.
As Lam, now 76, watched American forces dwindle and then disappear, he felt a rising panic. His close association with the Americans was well-known and he needed to get out – and get his family out – or risk being tagged as a spy and thrown into a Communist prison. He watched as South Vietnamese commanders fled, leaving whole battalions without a leader.
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Vietnam war veteran Ho Van Minh talks about his experience as a North Vietnamese soldier during the war at the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi on Thursday. The 77-year-old lost his right leg to a land mine while advancing on Saigon, just a month before that city fell.
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In this April 10, 1973, photo, Gen. Alexander M. Haig, center, is greeted by acting ambassador Charles Whitehouse, left, and another embassy official following Haig's arrival, in Saigon. The trip was made at the behest of President Nixon.