On the 25th anniversary of the close of the Vietnam chapter in American history, CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver asks the tough questions many Americans are still considering. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is email@example.com.
This weekend marks 25 years since the end of the war in Vietnam. And it has been 25 years of our nation trying to make peace with itself over our role there.
Why did we get involved? Should we have been there in the first place? Could we have done more? Did we try to do too much? What were we really fighting for? And were the lives of 58,000 American soldiers given in vain?
That last question is the one that is hardest to answer - especially for a generation whose parents fought a war that made the world safe for democracy.
Talk to a World War II vet about his service, and you'll notice an expression of pride slip across his face as he stands a little straighter. Speak to a Vietnam vet about his tour of duty, and you're likely to get a wary look and a shrug. After all, we didn't win the war in Vietnam, and there were no victory parades for the men who risked their own lives and watched as their buddies died.
And if you think that 25 years has made the confusion and bitterness go away, well you might want to spend some time with the former Army Rangers of Company D, 151st Infantry Airborne of the Indiana National Guard. The irony was that most of them joined the guard for one major reason: They didn't want to be drafted.
But at the height of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, during 1968 and '69, they found themselves in jungle combat, one of the few National Guard outfits sent together. Most of the reservists who were called up were sent individually, to fill in regular units. But these men wanted to stay together.
And though none seems exactly sure how, some strings were pulled in Washington, and they became the Army's only reserve-combat infantry company to serve together in Vietnam.
These were boys from farms and factories within about 100 miles of Indianapolis. Many of them were childhood friends. Some were college educated; others were just out of high school. But when the time came to serve, they answered the call. At 43, William, "Pappy" Hayes, the company's operations sergeant, was old enough to get out of going. But, he volunteered to go to "take care of" his boys. "I liked 'em," he says simply.
Gary Porter was a mechanic assigned to the unit. But when he realized the other guys would be fighting, especially one of his best pals, he switched to a combat assignment. "I couldn't see myself working on trucks and him going to the field," Porter explains. When a sergeant tried to talk him out if it, Porter responded, "This is something got to do. I got to live with myself, and this is how I got to do it."
It wasn't that they were ever gung ho about the war. They simply believed that if they had to go, they might as well be the best they could be at everything. They knew that regular Army types were watching and waiting for the wimpy reservists to fail, and they weren't going to let it happen.
So they learned how to run, shoot, lay mines, jump out of airplanes, and to hide their fear. And even though they were originally told that their Vietnam assignment would entail no fighting, just reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, when they were indeed called on for combat, they did their duty.
In 11 months, the men of Company D went on 947 missions, killed at least 100 enemy soldiers and lost only four of their own in combat. They won 538 medals.
But after all the days and nights of putting their lives on the line, the men of Company D were not prepared for what awaited them at home. They were unaware of the anti-war protests sweeping the country until their homebound planes landed in California and Chicago and were met by demonstrators. And they were unaware of how many Americans were holding Vietnam vets responsible for simply doing their patriotic duty.
Oscar Bruno, the company medic, says, "My best friend shunned me."
Porter, who became a team leader, going on five-day missions behind enemy lines, says, "My father died two, three years ago, and to the day he died, he never asked me what I did in Vietnam, and I never told him."
Many of the members of Company D are still haunted by the unwelcome they received on coming home. Many are still haunted by flashbacks, nightmares and questions about why the politicians and generals who started the war didn't have a better grasp of what they were getting America into.
But the one thing that all of these men do share is a belief in each. When they gathered a few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the death of one of their fellow guard members killed in combat, there were embraces, tears and a sense of overwhelming love and respect.
When I asked former platoon Lieutenant Jim Johnson if he felt that what Company D did was in vain, he answered that it was not. "We were soldiers," he said. "We did what we were supposed to do, and we did it to the best of our ability." But, he continued, "Do I feel like the Vietnam war was a mistake? Yes, I do."
And what about the rest of us - those who might have supported the war, but didn't have to go, or those who protested against it, but didn't have to go either. For many of us, this 25th anniversary of the war's end may be a good occasion to reflect on whether it should ever have been fought. But it should also be a time for us to reflect on how wrong we were to let Vietnam vets feel unappreciated and isolated.
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