- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as a stark reminder of the sacrifices made by 58,000 Americans who fought in America's longest war. There is no controversy over those who qualify to have their names engraved on this magnificent memorial. They need meet but one test death due to service in the Vietnam War. But controversy does exist over extending honors at the Wall to include another group of veterans for whom the timing and cause of death do not quite fit within the parameters of the law that first authorized the memorial.

The debate centers on S. 1921, a bill to be heard before the Subcommittee on National Parks seeking authority to place a 2-square-yard plaque at the site of the Wall to honor those who served in the war dying after their service "but as a direct result" of it. This would include those who died from causes such as cancers related to Agent Orange (the chemical defoliant used to deny concealment to the enemy in Vietnam) exposure and suicides related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As far as the timing is concerned, it is unfair to deny recognition at the Wall to veterans, otherwise entitled, simply because death came after one's service there or after the war's end. For example, a soldier wounded by enemy fire, medevaced to the U.S., who clings to life for weeks or months before finally succumbing to his wounds, clearly would be entitled to have his name engraved on the Wall even though death came after his service in Vietnam had concluded. Similarly, if the soldier were wounded on the last day of the war and died months later from his wounds, such recognition would be warranted.

The tougher issue in determining if a postservice or postwar death qualifies a veteran to be honored at the Wall is whether the death was combat-related.

Some might argue the use of Agent Orange during the war by U.S. forces does not constitute "enemy" fire and thus was not combat-related. But, in the evolution of 20th-century warfare, we have seen weapons employed that inflicted death by various means on both sides of the battlefield. Death did not always come from the bullet fired by an enemy marksman; for a friendly marksman who misidentified a target could just as easily inflict death. As it is said, once a bullet has left the muzzle of a rifle, it has no "friends." Thus, death in Vietnam came not only from enemy fire, but also from accidental friendly fire or the employment by friendly forces of weapons other than those typically used against the enemy on the battlefield such as Agent Orange. It is analogous to the situation in World War I when the use of gas on the battlefield at times inflicted casualties on friendly forces due to shifting winds.

As far as PTSD-related suicides are concerned, depression linked to combat service in Vietnam plagued many veterans who survived the fighting, only to return home to wage their own private wars. For some, like Marine Lewis Puller, it was a war of personal successes coupled with setbacks. The son of a famous military father, Puller volunteered for Vietnam where he stepped on a landmine, losing both legs and parts of both hands. He came home, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and, after years of struggling with PTSD, tragically took his own life in 1994.

Both PTSD and Agent Orange left victims with wounds silent and bloodless yet mortal inflicted as they served upon the battlefields of Vietnam. These veterans returned home, unaware of the mortality of their wounds, becoming the "hidden" casualties of that conflict. It is estimated their numbers far exceed those whose names appear on the Wall.

The Vietnam War is unique in American history. It is one cloaked in confusion and conflict even as to the actual start and end dates of the war. Initially, the official start date was Aug. 5, 1964 three days after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In 1996, Congress debated changing it to Feb. 21, 1961 the date of the first U.S. casualty. The design of a medal awarded to veterans for their service there, the Republic of Vietnam Service Medal, further clouded the issue. It bears a silver device inscribed "60-," supposedly representing the year 1960 U.S. soldiers first began serving in Vietnam, although Americans were there much earlier.

Interestingly, the ending service date on the device was left blank, to be engraved later with the year the recipient completed his or her service in Vietnam. But, to this day, for all who wear the medal, the end date remains blank. For those who returned home suffering from Agent Orange and PTSD, this was very symbolic because for them the war really never ended. Many have already lost that war; many others are yet to follow.

In honoring those who died of Vietnam War-related causes, it should not really matter if death came from enemy fire or Agent Orange-related cancer or PTSD-related suicide. All these victims are equally deserving of recognition for their sacrifices. S. 1921 only seeks to place at the very memorial commemorating those who died in Vietnam a 2-square-yard plaque with a short inscription to honor all those dying after "but as a direct cause of" their service in that war individuals whose names are otherwise ineligible for placement on the Wall. This would provide a simple and symbolic, yet unobtrusive, means of publicly honoring them.

With so many still-lingering conflicts from the Vietnam War, honoring these deserving veterans should not be one of them.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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