Forty-five years ago today [March 29], combat and combat support units withdrew from South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the end of nearly two decades of direct U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, but the social, cultural and psychological wounds of the Vietnam War still linger for those Americans who lived through it, and especially for the veterans who served during this turbulent time in our nation's history.
There are over 120,000 Vietnam-era veterans living in Oregon today, representing more than a third of our total veteran population. They represent the largest single demographic and the true leaders in our veteran community today.
And yet, too often and in too many ways, our Vietnam-era veterans remain invisible to the general public. Their incredible courage and remarkable achievements, both in Southeast Asia and here at home, too often go unrecognized. Their unique challenges and adversities too often go unacknowledged.
Young men and women returning from their service in Vietnam were not welcomed home. They were shunned and ignored. They were not allowed to take their rightful place among America's heroes. They came home, not to the soldier's rest that they deserved, but to a new battlefield, one in which they would be forced to struggle for the respect and recognition they had rightfully earned.
It has taken generations for the fruits of their labor to be known, but today we stand as a proud and grateful nation, humbled by the valor and sacrifice of those who answered their nation's call--including the 58,000 U.S. service members who went to Vietnam and never came home.
They did not make the decision to go to war; they went because their country asked them to. They kept the faith. They represented the best the United States of America had to offer and they fought for freedom, the mark of a true patriot. They put their lives on the line to help and save others.
We stand together to say now, what we should have done 45 years ago: "Thank you, and welcome home."
Mitch Sparks is a retired Navy veteran and director of the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs.