Fifty years ago today, Dec. 3, I came home after a year in Vietnam. I landed late in the evening at the Seattle airport after a long flight via Tokyo from Tuy Hoa Air Base on the South China Sea.
I was one of about 165 airmen who came home after a year away from our loved ones. There was no real celebrating as we trooped into the terminal. There was neither a welcoming or a protest directed towards us. No one shook our hands and no one called us baby killers or spat on us. We were simply a bunch of Air Force guys dressed in short-sleeved summer uniforms to whom no one paid any attention. People coming home from Vietnam was nothing new by then.
What sticks out in my mind about that night was that the TVs in the airport lounge were carrying an NBC television special starring singer Elvis Presley making his return to live performances after seven years of doing movies.
I mentioned to a guy in the lounge that I was just back from Vietnam. All he said was “OK” and went back to watching Elvis. It was like America being at war was just a normal part of life, like football season or watching Elvis on TV. I just went out in the terminal and silently waited to catch a flight home to my family.
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Nearly 17,000 Americans had died in the war during the 12 months I had been gone. One had been Army Sgt. Chuck Phillips, one of my closest friends at Cambridge High School.
At that point, despite more than 35,000 American deaths since American involvement began in Southeast Asia, our leaders assured us the war effort was going great. Until the Tet Offensive, they had told us there was a light at the end of the tunnel; after Tet we were promised their latest new strategy would be successful.
Five years, massive national protests and 23,000 more dead Americans later they declared a “Peace With Honor” victory. We simply pulled out and went home. And the world did not end.
Vietnam taught Americans that politicians and military leaders will mislead us rather than truthfully admit they are wrong and then do the right thing. I went to Vietnam a patriot because my government told me it was a crucial matter of national interest. I came home disillusioned because I knew Vietnam was a war we could not win. I also clearly understood that leaders were misleading us to protect their own legacy being labeled as the ones who lost the war.
I will never be able to sufficiently honor the sacrifices Vietnam veterans made for their country. I believe we all eventually knew we could not win but we did our duty anyhow. It was our national leaders who let us down. They put self-interest ahead of principles such as honesty, and we all paid the price.
America has now been at war in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001. That is 17 years, 2 months and 26 days ago. Nearly 2,500 American military men and women have died and more than 17,000 have been wounded. There are still 15,000 American military fighting there today. I am humbled and grateful to them all for their service. But still, each new set of military and civilian leaders tell us they have a new strategy that will succeed where the others failed.
Once again, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, we are being told unless we hold the line it will ultimately lead to the end of democracy as we know it. That rationale sounds a whole lot like the phony Communist domino theory that kept us in Vietnam more than a dozen years.
Once again, our service men and women must pay the cost of protecting the egos and legacy of our leaders. We will not win in Afghanistan. The only question is how long our leaders want to wait and how many more Americans they will sacrifice before they can devise their own “Peace With Honor” rationale for doing the right thing.