By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Surviving Vietnam War veterans have gone through a lot in their lifetimes. Fighting in thick jungles and dense heat, they had to deal with hidden enemies, diseases and other health hazards while being away from their families for long stretches. When they returned — many with post-traumatic stress disorder and other health issues — it was to a nation that didn’t welcome them with open arms.
For their suffering, it’s only right that we honor and remember their sacrifices now while we still can.
March 29 is Vietnam Veterans Day, named as such because it marks the date in 1973 when the last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam. This year, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald and Defense Secretary Ash Carter held a wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to recognize, honor and thank the nearly 9 million service members from that era. Other satellite events were held across the country.
To understand a little more about what those vets went through, here’s a summary of some of the major military events of Vietnam.
The early days of war
In November 1955, shortly after Vietnam was divided into the communist north and the anti-communist south, the U.S. began sending military advisers to help South Vietnamese troops repel invasions by the north, as well as the spread of communism. During the next decade, the number of advisers swelled into the thousands before the first U.S. ground troops were sent in to fight in March 1965.
The ground war began after what’s known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964, when the USS Maddox exchanged fire with three North Vietnamese torpedo boats while on routine patrol in the gulf. This began the Navy’s air and surface bombardment of North Vietnam, and within days, Marines and Army personnel were sent in to fight, too.
A major air campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder launched at the same time, with U.S. airmen targeting North Vietnamese transportation lines, defense systems and supply lines to get the north to stop helping communist guerrillas in the south, known as the Viet Cong. That goal was never achieved, though, and Rolling Thunder ended in 1968 after the war’s biggest milestone, the Tet Offensive.
The Tet Offensive was a major attack launched by the north on the south during the usually quiet Tet Lunar Year holiday. The offensive marked the peak of U.S. involvement in the war, with the Marines leading the charge to repel the communists, especially during the 77-day siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh and in a month-long fight at Hue City. The offensive — which you can read more about in my blog here — was a military loss for the north, who didn’t achieve any of their goals. But it was also a loss for the U.S. cause, as graphic images of the war were documented and aired in the U.S., causing support for the war to drastically erode. It also became obvious to leaders that we weren’t getting any closer to winning.
De-escalation of our troops began soon after Tet, as did peace talks, which would last through years of more fighting. In 1972, U.S. air and naval forces began an offensive known as Operation Linebacker I, which dropped more than 150,000 tons of bombs over North Vietnamese air fields, power plants and other key infrastructure to disrupt the flow of supplies being sent to enemy troops in the south.
Shortly thereafter, in late 1972, Operation Linebacker II kicked into gear — another bombing campaign, this one aimed at bringing the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table after they had earlier walked away. It worked, and by January 1973, a settlement was reached. All U.S. combat troops were withdrawn within a few months, although fighting continued for another two years before Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, fell to the communists in 1975, when all Americans were evacuated from the region.
The U.S. lost more than 58,000 troops during the Vietnam War, while nearly triple that were injured.
With anti-war sentiment raging in the last few years of the war, many Americans blamed the troops. Because of that, many Vietnam veterans got a chilly reception when they returned home.
In the decades since, the U.S. has worked to correct that mistake. The 50th anniversary commemoration, which will continue through 2025, is a long-overdue opportunity for Americans to honor all Vietnam vets — 7.2 million of whom are still alive today — for their service and sacrifices.
If you’re interested in taking part in one of the many ceremonies, find one in your area by visiting VietnamWar50th.com.