I'm proud to be a Vietnam veteran. But I was paid for every day I was there. I went where I was told to go; did what I was told to do. I came back safe and sound in body and mind. I am no hero.
The real heroes are the 58,267 men and women whose names are inscribed on that long black Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The real heroes are their families who made the ultimate sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
The real heroes are those who came back dismembered, mangled, crippled and blind. Those who even now waste away in veterans hospitals and rest homes; those who were robbed of their youth and their futures; those who are haunted still by the mental and emotional demons that infest their days and nights.
They are the real heroes — the ones we should honor this Veterans Day. Those who have no legs to march in the parades, no arms to raise the flags, no joy left in their souls.
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The first known casualty in Vietnam was Richard B. Fitzgibbon of North Weymouth, Mass., way back in the very early going of 1956.
His name is there on the wall, along with the name of his son, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, who died in Vietnam over nine years later on Sept. 7, 1965.
There are three such sets of names of fathers and sons on the wall.
Incredibly, to those of us who served, it's been 36 years since the last casualty in Vietnam. Equally astonishing is the fact that most of the surviving parents of those who died are now deceased.
We hurt even today for those dead fathers and mothers who suffered so much. And some poor parents lost more than one child. There are the names of 31 sets of brothers on that long black wall.
I can still see the image of my father standing at the fence at the airport in Paducah, waving goodbye as my plane lifted off. Looking back through the little window, I saw him getting smaller and smaller, his hand still waving as the huge silver craft got lost in the distant clouds and my face faded into the sky. Not until I had sons of my own would I know the aching heart behind that lonely wave.
Perhaps one of the most soul-wrenching statistics of that Asian war is that 3,103 of those we lost were only 18 years old.
There are 8,283 names on the Wall of youngsters who were only 19 years old. Teenagers. Most of them had never known marriage and having children. They hadn't watched color television. None of them would know the joys of the end of the Cold War or the everyday use of computers, microwaves, MP-3 players, cellphones and the Internet.
Almost 1,000 of my Vietnam brethren died on their first day in the Nam. Almost 1,500 died on their last day there. Tragedy was written with a stabbing exclamation point.
There are the names of 1,057 Kentuckians on that wall of honor. West Virginia paid the biggest price per capita of any state in the blood of their young.
So, there you have it, folks. A bloody, old war. The only war we ever lost, they tell us. Maybe so. But I've got news for you. It wasn't lost by the guys I knew or by any of those gallant soldiers whose names are etched on that long black wall in Washington, D.C.
We were there, so far away from home, for a reason. And that reason was not what some — who are now safely removed from the bedlam of those dangerous times — accuse us of having.
One of those brave souls was Major Michael Davis O'Donnell of Springfield, Ill. He was a helicopter pilot killed in action a short time after he wrote these departing words.
I leave his farewell with you to consider this Veterans Day as you pause in your peaceful and happy life to pay homage to our vets — our Vietnam vets:
If you are able, save for them a place inside of you
And save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always.
Take what they have left and what they taught you with their dying
And keep it with your own.
And in that time when men decide
And feel safe to call the war insane,
Take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.