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Images of War Still Haunt Some Vietnam Veterans

On April 30, 1975 the Vietnam War ended. It was the first war that the United States lost. While the war has been over for 30 years, its impact on the country continues to be debated. But as VOA's Brian Padden reports, there's no debate about its impact on many who fought in Vietnam.

The images of helicopters evacuating personnel from the U.S. embassy in Saigon, now 30 years old, still haunt Americans today. The Vietnam War, in which over two-and-a-half million U.S. soldiers fought and 58,000 died, divided the nation and ultimately ended in failure. The split created between the war's protesters and supporters has become a permanent part of the political landscape. Its military lessons, such as the need to use overwhelming force to insure victory in a conflict, are still being debated. But what may be most profound and enduring is the effect the Vietnam War has had on many of the U.S. soldiers who fought there.

Vietnam changed the life of VOA's own Gary Thomas. In 1970 at the age of 19 Gary served as an intelligence officer, and like many vets of that era, returned home feeling forgotten, disillusioned and angry. He decided to become a journalist as a way of coming to terms with the turmoil of the times.

"When I came back I figured I wanted to do something that would illuminate people and educate people about things like this. So that when decisions to go to war, which is the most profound decision any government can make would at least be made in an atmosphere of intelligent discourse and with the right knowledge and information," says Mr. Thomas.

Covering world events brought Gary Thomas back to Vietnam five years ago and helped him see his former enemies in a different light.

"In 2000, the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon or the liberation as the Vietnamese like to call it. It was a very moving experience. It was fun, in a strange sort of way," says Gary Thomas.

“That really I think helped put a lot of the ghosts to rest. A lot of veterans approach it differently. Some it consumed their lives. And others it didn't. They just put it behind them. I think most of us, we took a middle ground. I'll just say, 'I'll remember it. It'll be a part of my existence but I can't let it consume me,” adds Mr. Thomas.

"I came back from Vietnam very angry and all of my friends were involved in protesting the war and some girls wouldn't even go out with me when I came back," says Jan Scruggs.

Mr. Scruggs has been consumed by Vietnam ever since he was wounded in battle there in 1969. He eventually channeled his emotional energy into raising over eight million dollars to build the national Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"Well I always find it a very emotional experience knowing that these people are still cared for," he says.

His journey has also taken him back to Vietnam. He works on a project to remove the estimated 350,000 tons of unexploded bombs and mines, leftover from the war, that cause over 1,000 casualties a year.

"I just believe it is your responsibility as a human being to help anyone that you can. And this is my little role in life and I feel very good about it," Jan Scruggs says.

Rick Weidman and other vets with the Vietnam Veterans Association often visit soldiers injured in the Afghan and Iraq wars. It is their way, he says, to ensure that the service and sacrifice made by today's soldiers is not forgotten.

"As an American and an American veteran of an earlier era I care about them. I love them for who they are and that they deserve every ounce of support emotionally and otherwise that I can muster and working with others that we can muster, to assist their transition back into society which they have paid such a dear price for," he says.

While the Vietnam War left the country divided, these vets have worked over time, to bring understanding, to heal the wounds of the past, and to demonstrate the nation's commitment to a new generation of American soldiers.