(The Three Soldiers – Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial)
Following on the heels of Veteran’s Day is perhaps a reasonably appropriate time to air this matter. Not unlike the Vietnam War itself, who is and who is not a “Vietnam Veteran” seems to spark debate and controversy from time to time even these many years later. I am actually quite struck with how often I still run across a “letter to the editor” column in some newspaper that takes issue with the designation and its application in one situation or another.
It would seem that within the confines of the Vietnam era there has since been a distinct debate regarding the definition of what constitutes someone being a veteran of that war. There have been numerous debates within various states within the United States who offer special vehicle license plates for Vietnam Vets as to who should be or should not be eligible to receive such plates. One of America’s main stream and more popular veteran’s organizations, the “Veterans of Foreign Wars“ (VFW), has received their share of flack over its criteria regarding membership of a Vietnam Veteran into its rank and file.
As to the license plate issue, most States who offer a special license plate with the designation “Vietnam Veteran” do not prerequisite any particular criteria to be eligible for such plates other than having been in one of the branches of the military during the subject war’s designated time frame while the VFW on the other hand requires that you meet the criteria stipulated for being awarded the “Vietnam Service Medal” (or Ribbon) which has a specific criteria associated with it is much more restrictive. So, what are the facts regarding this issue or are we dealing with simply opinion and bias as to what really constitutes what is most commonly referred to as a Vietnam Veteran….
The primary issue within the debate for the most part comes down to whether an individual served on the ground or “in country”, as it is most often referred, within the confines of the Republic of Vietnam itself. They have come to be referred to as an “in country” military personnel as compared to those military personnel who were on active duty during the time-frame of the war but were stationed at other locations around the world, be it the United States or other foreign locations. There are two distinct terms and definitions that have emerged which are intended to define apparently two different categories of Vietnam Veterans. Those designations and definitions are as follows:
The first designation we look at is the one termed “Vietnam Era Veteran” because it is the one inclusive of ‘all’ military personnel who were serving in any branch of the Armed Services during the time period from August 5, 1964 through May 7, 1975. This designation was established by the United States government through the “Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRRA)” enacted in 1974. Below is an excerpt from that act which defines the Vietnam Era Veteran….
Sec. 4211. Definitions
As used in this chapter –
(1) The term “special disabled veteran” means –
(a) a veteran who is entitled to compensation (or who but for the receipt of military retired pay would be entitled to compensation) under laws administered by the Secretary for a disability (i) rated at 30 percent or more, or (ii) rated at 10 or 20 percent in the case of a veteran who has been determined under section 3106 of this title to have a serious employment handicap; or
(b) a person who was discharged or released from active duty because of service-connected disability.
(2) The term “veteran of the Vietnam era” means an eligible veteran any part of whose active military, naval, or air service was during the Vietnam era.
(3) The term “disabled veteran” means (A) a veteran who is entitled to compensation (or who but for the receipt of military retired pay would be entitled to compensation) under laws administered by the Secretary, or (B) a person who was discharged or released from active duty because of a service-connected disability.
(4) The term “eligible veteran” means a person who –
(a) served on active duty for a period of more than 180 days and was discharged or released therefrom with other than a dishonorable discharge;
(b) was discharged or released from active duty because of a service-connected disability; or
(c) as a member of a reserve component under an order to active duty pursuant to section 12301(a), (d), or (g), 12302, or 12304 of title 10, served on active duty during a period of war or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge is authorized and was discharged or released from such duty with other than a dishonorable discharge.
The “Vietnam Era” itself has been so defined as follows: (A) The period beginning on February 28, 1961, and ending on May 7, 1975, in the case of a veteran who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period. (B) The period beginning on August 5, 1964, and ending on May 7, 1975, in all other cases.”
Now we move to the second designation and that is the “Vietnam Veteran” designation itself. This designation is generally applied to any military personnel who were serving during the time frame designated from November 15, 1961 to March 1973 to include April 29th and 30th of 1975. This is based on being awarded the “Vietnam Service Medal”, also referred to as a “Vietnam Campaign Medal” whose criteria is stipulated as follows…..
Any service member who served on temporary duty for more than 30 consecutive days, or 60 non-consecutive days, attached to or regularly serving for one, or more, days with an organization participating in or directly supporting ground (military) operations or attached to or regularly serving for one, or more, days aboard a naval vessel directly supporting military operations in the Republic of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos within the defined combat zone (DoD 1348 C126.96.36.199.5. revised September 1996) between the dates of 15 November 1961 to 28 March 1973, and from 29 April 1975 to 30 April 1975.
(Vietnam Service Ribbon)
It should be noted that within the text of the “Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act” the veterans awarded this medal are referred to as “Campaign Veterans” in lieu of the more commonly used term, Vietnam Veteran. To see a list of the campaigns associated with this medal which are a part of the awarding prerequisite, click (here).
So, as can be discerned from the information above it seems to be an unmistakable fact that we do have to deal with two separate designations. The U.S. Census Bureau (2004) reports there are 8.2 million “Vietnam Era Veterans”. Of these 2.59 million are reported to have served “in country”.
But there is yet one more piece to this puzzle. Although not supported by any published criteria, there are a block of veterans, mostly comprised of those who were “in country” and directly in harm’s way. I think for conversation’s sake we can most easily associate those veterans with the information surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
(Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Washington DC)
In 1965 a Presidential Executive Order requiring a list of combat zone casualties be compiled. The Executive Order specified that the combat zone would be inclusive of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and surrounding coastal areas. It was determined at that time that only casualties incurred within those boundaries would be affixed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
(Vietnam War Map – Gray Area is Designated Combat Area – Click to Enlarge)
This also gives fuel to those who would contend that these military personnel who served in this specific designated area whether living or dead, reserve to sole right to be referred to as Vietnam Veterans. And if you look at that wall and truly understand what is contained therein, it is most difficult to otherwise make a case to the contrary.
I have never formulated a strong opinion on the matter and that is primarily based on my service. My direct participation in the Vietnam War fell within the criteria of the “Vietnam Service Medal” for which I was so awarded. But…. other than flying directly over Vietnam during that time my “on the ground” duties in direct support of the war/conflict were performed in Thailand. Therefore I was never actually in “harm’s way” as compared to those “on the ground” in Vietnam itself.
But, there are those on the far left of this debate who would adamantly disagree that I share the title of “Vietnam Veteran” with those “in country” vets and in one sense, I suppose one could not in good conscience argue their point but at some point a reasonable man would certainly choose to stop splitting hairs.
It is admittedly odd and often simply circumstance as to how it can play out. I think my own circumstance would be quite typical of perhaps the self-inflicted confusion surrounding the debate. In late 1964 I was transferred from my base in Oklahoma to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. Stationed there were a contingent of KC-135 tankers which supported a majority of the air activities in the South East Asia theatre, in particular the B-52′s flying out of Guam who were conducting bombing runs in Vietnam as part of operation “Operation Arc Light“. The KC-135′s were stationed and launched from Kadena AFB for the sole purpose of refueling aircraft carrying out missions within the confines of the Republic of Vietnam. I was stationed there for some 18 months performing my duties as an aircraft radar and navigational equipment repairman and then was reassigned back to the United States. Given my service there coupled with its location, I would now be referred to technically as a “Vietnam Era Veteran”.
However, while stationed in Okinawa I volunteered for some temporary duty assignments which would ultimately put me “on the ground” in Thailand at a secret location supporting a contingency of five KC-135 tankers. While at this location I was performing the exact same duties as I performed in Okinawa but because of the location where I was performing those duties, I would be awarded the Vietnam Service Medal and would then technically become a “Vietnam Veteran”.
Now, as to the memberships into various organizations for a veteran of the Vietnam War, almost all have some measure of criteria to be met when becoming one of their members. In my opinion there are probably several hundred of these organizations in existence but I will speak of the two I consider the largest and most well known. The “Vietnam Veterans of America“ organization, the largest Vietnam Veterans organization in America, chose to use the following criteria for it membership:
Membership is open to U.S. armed force veterans who served on active duty (for other than training purposes) in the Republic of Vietnam between February 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975, or in any duty location between August 5, 1964 and May 7, 1975.
Membership into the “Veterans of Foreign Wars“ (VFW), probably the most overall popular veterans organization in America, was restricted to only those serving in the military during the Vietnam Era and having met the criteria established for the awarding of the Vietnam Service Medal.
As to my own state’s license plate debate, given the terms and definitions entered into fact that seem to govern this debate, it would seem the term used on the license plate, Vietnam Veteran, and the criteria established for displaying the license plate contradict. If we go by the technical definitions established, only those veterans who have been awarded the “Vietnam Service Medal” would be allowed to purchase and display the subject plates. But per state requirements to display the license plate you need to meet the criteria established for the Vietnam Era Veteran, therefore it seems logical that the term displayed on the plate should reflect that. Nevertheless, distinctions have been made regarding this term and whether one agrees with the final disposition or not, the matter may not ever be brought to resolve to suit all parties concerned.
(Arkansas Special License Plate – Vietnam Veteran)
In closing…. it goes without saying that one could probably debate and cite one example or another to their point without end regarding this issue. On the other hand, it does seem somewhat ironic that such a discourse surrounds who is or is not a Vietnam Veteran when the same measure of controversy seems to surround the war itself. So I guess therein lies a mystifying conundrum.