Frances Schuster thanks Vietnam veteran and retired firefighter Mark Wayland Oct. 30 for doing a great job during a weekly flag ceremony at Old Towne Orange Plaza.
On a warm Saturday in August, a squad of Vietnam veterans serves grilled hamburgers to soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the soldiers are young enough to be the veterans’ children, and the gesture seems like no big deal.
There is honor, duty, appreciation. But more than anything, there is a commitment to ensure that never again will veterans be abandoned by other veterans.
CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Consider that it’s a thousand footsteps in Washington, D.C., from the World War II Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But until recently, they might as well have been worlds apart.
In the past several years, I’ve talked to dozens of Vietnam veterans who say it wasn’t just the anti-war protesters who they felt abandoned them. It was World War II veterans.
Now – a half-century since the early days of the Vietnam War – there is reconciliation.
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At its heart, this is a story of fathers and sons.
At the end of World War II, tens of thousands of men came home and worked hard to make up for lost time. They launched careers, married, started families.
Jack Hammett is the founder and chairman of the Freedom Committee of Orange County, an organization of veterans that brings living history into classrooms by having its members speak to elementary and high school students. Along with nearly 100 volunteers, the 93-year-old Costa Mesa resident is a spokesman of sorts for World War II veterans in Orange County.
A Pearl Harbor survivor and Navy corpsman, Hammett served in North Africa, the North Atlantic, England. He echoes other World War II vets saying that after the war ended, “We were busy building our lives.”
Two decades later, 3 million sons of the World War II generation went off to fight in Vietnam. At the height of the war, 40,042 Americans were killed during a three-year span.
By war’s end, more than 58,000 American troops were dead, more than 300,000 wounded – and that doesn’t include those still suffering from PTSD or the effects of Agent Orange.
Still, for many World War II veterans, the Vietnam conflict seemed relatively minor. Understand that 416,800 Americans died in such places as the Philippines, Germany, Italy, France.
“Looking back in retrospect,” Hammett says contemplating a world map covering a wall in his home office, “unless you fought in the South Pacific, you really didn’t understand what guys in Vietnam were doing. It was a different type of war.”
One significant difference between the two wars was that World War II troops fought with the purpose to take land, free nations. The Pentagon described the goal in Vietnam as “high body counts.”
Sure, counting the dead was a gruesome and controversial way to decide who was winning. But for many, it also was intangible.
Hammett confesses: “Those poor (guys) over there, they didn’t know what they were doing other than killing people.
“I couldn’t have put up with it.”
Additionally, there was a war of sorts going on at home that contributed to a disconnect between fathers and sons.
The counterculture revolution.
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Except for the relatively few members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, many guys who served in such places as Hue, Da Nang, Khe Sanh weren’t part of the counterculture.
Instead of grooving to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America,” they felt alienated and attacked by anti-war demonstrators.
Judging by some current jacket patches and PowerPoint presentations that call Jane Fonda a traitor and worse, much anger remains.
But for fathers who saw demonstrators in Washington burn draft cards and watched television footage of mustached soldiers in Vietnam wearing helmets marked with peace symbols, the 1960s sometimes felt like one giant incomprehensible mass.
“We saw people burning flags, burning bras,” Hammett recalls. “We really didn’t get it.”
Of failing to reach out to the Vietnam veterans returning home, Hammett is characteristically frank.
“We were short-sighted,” he admits. “World War II vets should be ashamed for not recognizing what was going on.”
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Every Wednesday evening for more than five years, Mark Wayland, a retired firefighter and Marine who served in Vietnam, walks across the Orange traffic circle, onto the plaza and heads up a flag ceremony.
While the sun and an American flag descend at the same time, dozens of veterans salute, sometimes hundreds. And every time I’ve attended, there were veterans from a range of wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan. Perhaps most important of all, there also were active-duty warriors.
Like the members of Chapter 785 of Vietnam Veterans of America who support Costa Mesa’s Army reserves – and I should note for transparency I was inducted as an honorary member several months ago – Wayland was motivated to ensure his brothers and sisters in arms receive the recognition they deserve, that they experience a different homecoming than he did.
Wayland’s father served in the Navy during World War II and worked as a boilerman on destroyers. But like many fathers of what some sons and daughters call “the silent generation,” Wayland’s father didn’t discuss his service.
When Wayland enlisted, nothing from his dad. When Wayland returned home, nothing.
“He never said a word,” Wayland mourns. “I never heard a word about his battles. I learned from an uncle that a fire broke out in the boiler room during a battle and he went back down and got his crew. All survived.”
Wayland speaks for many when he recalls his own homecoming, a haphazard affair. After serving as an artillery man (his ears still ring) in the jungles of Vietnam, Wayland found himself stationed at the Marine base near Twentynine Palms. A few weeks after arriving in the desert, he was mid-salute to a second lieutenant when a truck a few yards away backfired.
Wayland crumpled to the ground. He was sent to supposedly less stressful duty – working at the Navy brig in San Diego.
Yes, that was Wayland’s homecoming.
When his youngest son, Casey, came home after serving in the Army in Iraq, Wayland and his entire family, including his sister and brother-in-law, turned out.
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When Hammett and friends formed the Freedom Committee, it was almost exclusively World War II veterans. Today, it mostly still is. But the list of speakers also includes veterans of Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan.
“We now have a great cadre of Vietnam guys,” Hammett says, his smile reflected on a computer screen as he scans a list of Freedom Committee speakers.
Hammett explains the journey of Vietnam veterans from warriors to classroom teachers this way: “Instead of being called ‘baby killers,’ they’re called ‘heroes.’ ”
That’s an important transition. As Hammett and Wayland know, a little appreciation goes a long way.
But with age always on the march, there’s a ticking clock to close the emotional gap between World War II fathers and the sons of the Vietnam War. Still the healing is less about these two generations than it is about future generations.
Vietnam Veterans of America’s founding principle makes the mission clear:
“Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Haunting images at the Korean War Veterans Memorial – just a short walk from the memorials honoring Vietnam and World War II veterans – reinforce that promise.
Nineteen stainless steel figures in uniform, more than 7 feet tall, reflect gossamer-like on a granite wall. They join dozens of other images of those who served in what is often called “the forgotten war.”
Each one looks across the Reflecting Pool, toward six statues that honor the men and women who served in Vietnam.