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Last Vietnam vet to serve in U.S. Senate reflects on Memorial Day

Vietnam War veterans reflect 50 years after United States pulled out of war
Vietnam War veterans reflect 50 years after United States pulled out of war 02:03

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- After more than two decades in the U.S. Senate, this is Sen. Tom Carper's second to last Memorial Day weekend in office. He plans to retire next year as the last Vietnam veteran to serve in the chamber. 

Multiple Vietnam veterans served in the Senate, including former Sen. John Kerry and the late Sen. John McCain, with whom Carper worked closely during his time in Congress.

More than 50 years have passed since the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War. Carper spoke with CBS News Philadelphia reflecting on his military service, Memorial Day and his time in public office. 

Service in Vietnam 

Carper, 76, began his decades-long career in public service in the late 1960s, serving three tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War as a naval flight officer. He ended his military career in 1991 after more than 23 years of military service in the United States Navy and United States Navy Reserve.

"Some of the best leadership training that I got was in the military as a midshipman and later on in active duty in the reserves," said Carper. 

The Office of U.S. Senator Tom Carper

Carper says it is incredibly important to honor not only those who served or are presently serving, but also to recognize servicemembers who selflessly gave their lives while in the line of duty - especially those who served in Vietnam.

"For us, Memorial Day is a very special thing. And a bunch of people whom I served with in the Vietnam War never came back," said Carper." [It was] a very difficult and hard war. A very sad war."     

Many Vietnam veterans, including Carper, say that they did not get the respect they believe they deserved upon their return. At the time, the war in Vietnam was widely protested.

"We didn't get much respect. We didn't get much of a welcome when we returned and I just want to make sure that never happens again to our veterans," said Carper.

The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of 58,220 U.S. military personnel. Over half a century later, Carper continues to recognize and honor those he served with. 

The Office of U.S. Senator Tom Carper

"[I] make it clear that their service and their sacrifice is remembered and is important. I don't just do it every 50 years. I do it almost every day," said Carper.  

Carper's relationships with some of his most well-known political counterparts were forged from his military service in Vietnam.

"John McCain and I served together in the House. We arrived together at the same time. We served together in the Senate. We worked together along with John Kerry to find out what happened to thousands of MIAs at the end of the Vietnam War," said Carper. "We did it in a way that normalized relationships between the U.S. and Vietnam."  

Public office and veterans affairs

Carper recently announced that he plans to retire from his career in public office and would not be seeking reelection in 2024. He has notably won 14 statewide elections over the decades.

In 1976, Carper was first elected Delaware state treasurer at the age of 29 and served three terms in the role. He then went on to serve as the state's sole representative in the U.S. House for five terms after winning a seat in 1982. Carper served two terms as Delaware's governor, starting in 1993, and mounted a successful bid for the Senate in 2000, with the urging of then-Sen. Joe Biden a long-time friend. 

Carper says his military service has guided his work in public office by advocating for and championing veterans-related issues that affect many in the Delaware Valley. Employment, education, jobs and housing are among his top priorities.

"One of the reasons why I've worked for years in Delaware and across the country is to help strengthen the Veterans Administration and to make sure they have the resources they need to look out for veterans. To make sure they have access to health care and if they need help starting a business or going into business. You name it and we're going to be there to look out for them," said Carper. 

Most recently, Carper's work with the PACT Act has helped to expand VA healthcare elegibility for veterans who had toxic exposures during the Vietnam War, Gulf War and post-9/11 wars. The legislation received strong, bipartisan support and Biden signed it into law last August.

"I think the PACT Act is a clear indication that when the chips are down we [Republicans and Democrats] can stand up, we can work together and unite on a common cause," said Carper. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 2.1 million veterans have been screened for toxic exposures since the PACT Act was signed into law.

This Memorial Day, as residents of the Delaware Valley remember U.S. servicemembers who lost their lives in the line of duty, Carper shared these words.

"My parents raised my sister and me with the idea that we can never say three words enough," Carper said. "One of those words is please and two others are thank you. We can never say thank you too often."

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