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Vietnam Anniversary Holds Lessons for US Military


Saturday's 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon has special meaning for the U.S. military and for the country's Vietnam veterans.

On April 30, 1975 Tom Corey had already been home from Vietnam for seven years - a wounded veteran of the war, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Today, Mr. Corey is the president of the organization Vietnam Veterans of America. He works closely with officials at the Department of Defense on a variety of issues, including efforts to ensure that what he sees as the mistakes of Vietnam are not repeated.

"It's a word that I think that DOD and others, when you say Vietnam, it reminds them of, 'let's not make that same mistake again,’" he said.

On April 30, 1975, Mark Clodfelter was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. By the time he graduated, the war was over. But he felt its impact during his more than 20-year military career. He became a military historian, and he says the specter of Vietnam was particularly evident when the United States took a very different approach in its next major conflict, the Gulf War of 1991.

"Vietnam was constantly in the background, and the lack of support that had been given to the troops and the families, and things of that nature, was paramount I think with the administration there in 1991,” he explained. “George Bush Sr. makes the statement that we're not going to go to war with one hand tied behind our back the way we did in Vietnam. And the military commanders there, were given a great deal of latitude in terms of how to run the war, with a great amount of support from the Bush I administration. And I think those types of trends have continued."

But Professor Clodfelter, who now teaches as a civilian at the National Defense University here in Washington, says the first President Bush was wrong about one thing.

"In the aftermath of the conflict, you've got George Bush Sr. saying we kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” recalled Mr. Clodfelter. “I personally don't believe that, because I believe the Vietnam Syndrome means something dramatically different to every individual. Once you start saying 'Vietnam shows that' or 'Vietnam proves that', you're on very shaky soil."

Still, Americans inside and outside the military take their own lessons from the Vietnam era. Officials of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to be interviewed for this report, but analyst Frank Gafney at the Center for Security Policy says the now all-volunteer U.S. military is much more capable than the conscription-based U.S. military of the 1960s and 1970s was. He says Americans have learned not to believe their enemies' propaganda, as he says they did during the Vietnam War. And Mr. Gafney believes that even in the midst of controversy over the war in Iraq, Americans have also learned the importance of sticking with things they start, even if the road is difficult.

"I think the United States has a learned painful lesson from Vietnam, I certainly hope it has, and that is we bail out, or cut and run, if you will, on people at our peril. As hard as some things appear to be at a given moment, the consequences of doing that particularly over time can be even worse, certainly for the people directly involved, but ultimately I think perhaps for us, as well," said Mr. Gafney.

For Tom Corey of the Vietnam Veterans of America, there is another lesson, too. "When we came home, nobody wanted to be part of it. And I think that had a severe effect on these guys, too. Nobody wanted to recognize them for what they had done for their country, what their country had asked them to do. [At] Vietnam Veterans [of America], our motto is 'Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,'" he added.

Mr. Corey says the word 'Vietnam' has a strong meaning for most Americans, even those too young to remember the war. "I don't think it will ever be forgotten,” he stated. “I think the word 'Vietnam' will stay out there. It's a word that means something to people today. It's not negative. We don't hear it negative anymore. It's something that people say, 'thank you.'"

Mr. Corey says it is a continuing effort to make sure that the lessons of Vietnam are applied, and that veterans of all the wars are properly cared for. But he says he has some allies among the top U.S. military officers of today, some of whom were young soldiers like him in Vietnam.

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