April 30 marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. The veterans of that war are graying. Yet the conflict that claimed the lives of over 58,000 American servicemen is still a vivid part of our national story - a story whose meaning and message continues to be controversial today. VOA's Adam Phillips sampled some opinions during a recent visit to the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C..
At barely 9 o'clock one recent sunny morning, scores of solemn tourists were already touching the names engraved on the granite face of the Vietnam Memorial. It commemorates the casualties of an era long before any of the students in Michael Sikes' high school tour group were born.
"We just arrived with our kids here," said Mr. Sikes, who was only 6 years old himself in 1975, when the conflict ended. "I was told by our guide that the average [age] of the soldiers [was] about 18, and I was just astonished that such young people were sent off to battle." Mr. Sikes was silent for a moment, then added, "They knew very little about life, and here they were thrown into the middle of a war where they could possibly lose their life. They might not even know about why they are fighting, and here they are laying that life on the line."
Pam Gofrin of Alameda California, a parent who was accompanying another class trip, protested the war in Vietnam while it raged. Yet today Ms. Gofrin is more sympathetic with the foreign policies that sent American soldiers to fight. "We brought a lot of junior high school children here so that they might experience part of history," she said, "and [learn] how we were fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese against communism. And hopefully, they can interpret that as our country helping another country fight for their freedoms."
That's not how a tour guide named Tom saw the war when he first arrived in the U.S. during the mid-1960s as an immigrant from India. "I was not at all for the war," he said. "It was one of those tragic experiences in American history that split the nation … and still the wound is there. And this memorial is very private, very personal and very emotional for that reason. I am kind of unbalanced when I come here, even though I have come here hundreds of times." He conceded that it's been a long time since the war was over, but added, "The legacy of the war is still there. The intensity of the feeling has not died."
For many Vietnam-era veterans, memories of the war remain both intense -- and fresh. A young visitor named "Mizrak" told a reporter about a veteran she has become friends with. "He just told me stories about it and how horrible it was and the nightmares he still has from it," she said. One of those stories was about a child that was shot by a friend of his. "[The child] was approaching them with a basket of what they thought might have been fruit," Mizrak shuddered, recounting the veteran's story, "but they weren't sure if it had grenades in it. And so they had to kill the child."
To this day, tears are freely shed over the war in Vietnam. A Michigan visitor named Beth was openly weeping - for those who lived as well as those who died. "I guess as a mother you look at all the names and you think of all the mothers who lost their sons. And it's so sad!," she sobbed. "You always think of the poor people who died, but [if] you think of the parents who go through raising all their sons and then they lose them. And they have to live with that."