Ask Vietnam Veterans For Forgiveness

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Ask Vietnam veterans for forgivenessIsn't it time to ask Vietnam veterans for forgiveness? 
by Patrick Butler 

I don't mean running up to Vets and doing it one by one, though that's not a bad idea.

I mean a well-publicized official, ceremonial event where somebody with influence, position and corresponding power actually asks Vietnam veterans to forgive the people of this nation for how they were treated during and after the war.

I don't mean an "honoring" ceremony per se, lauding their sacrifice for this country. That's different and it's been done by some. I mean humbling ourselves as a nation, officially recognizing that a great wrong has been done by us, the people. Collectively. No one making excuses or saying "yeah, but" for any reason…

     

Hasn't this been done already? Evidently not. Talking too "recent" veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, one 52 and another 25 years old, they both made comments about Vietnam.

"I'm so glad we're past Vietnam and how those soldiers were treated by the public," said Lt. Col. Victor Zillmer of the Army's Corp of Engineers. "I'm very thankful people everywhere have been very supportive and that means a lot to us. We serve the people and politics has no part of it. I think ever soldier feels the same way."

Zillmer's comment reveals that soldiers today still think about Viet-nam and how America shot its own wounded. Vietnam vets have memories no other veterans have to deal with. It's the healing of those memories I'm talking about. There are just some things a ribbon, or a wall sculpture or a "thank you for serving" won't touch.

They need to hear us say, "Please forgive us. We were wrong."

I was chatting with Lt. Justin Lee for a Memorial Day story when he stopped, realizing I'd been present during the Vietnam War years.

"What was that like?" he asked. "How did people really react to the vets coming home?"

My mind reeled. In front of me was a young man who hadn't a real idea of what it felt like to be an American male during the Vietnam War. I'm 54 now and I realized I held a key to our past the younger generation can only grasp at.

What to tell the young lieutenant? Images of citizens shouting, "Hell no, we won't go" or crowds singing "Country Joe" McDonald's anthem of the late '60s "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" or violent protests meeting GIs after they got off the plane from "in-country" flashed before my eyes. I can feel it now.

"It was a time when soldiers were thought of by many people as agents of an abusive power," I said, finally, feeling helpless to paint the big picture. "Some people felt betrayed by their own government. Some protesters, who didn't know much, only knew they were being asked to potentially die for something they didn't understand. The soldiers took the heat."

Lee shook his head.

"I'm glad I didn't have to go through that," he said.

The Vietnam ghost is still with us and not just as a comparison to current events. It's in the far-reaching memories of the young men and women who came home to an aggressive atmosphere and still recall the uncomfortable and perhaps searing experience.

Who among us easily forgets a single insult or comment said in spite? If Christians in particular want a "scriptural" basis to ask forgiveness, take another look at Matthew 5:23: "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, first go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."

It has been far too long that the spectacle of how we, us, treated our soldiers, is still lingering in the minds of new and old veterans alike. We need to put it to rest. And we need to do it while the Vietnam Vets are still alive. We need to identify with the wrong done to them as "our" wrong, even "my wrong," not someone else's, taking collective responsibility and enabling this healing to our national psyche.

Back in 1971, I wrote letters to soldiers – strangers, while they were in Vietnam. I wasn't angry at them. But I'm embarrassed they were reviled at home and I'm not going to point fingers at who was responsible.

We're responsible. Us. They were our soldiers. They're our people. I hope, wish, that every religious leader on this Memorial Day Sunday will ask Vietnam vets in their congregation for forgiveness. We need to do it for them first, and then for us.

Vietnam Vets, please forgive us. We didn't really know what we were doing. It was our pride and arrogance that got in the way, thinking more of our ourselves than of you. There really is no excuse for it. We'd be grateful if you forgave us and let us embrace you once again, and that in turn you would honor us by embracing us as well. 

God bless you.


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