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FIRST-PERSON: Time to table discussion of Vietnam War

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–When I was 14 years old, I traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of a civics program for students. We walked the halls of Congress, spoke with our state’s senators and toured the U.S. Treasury Department. The sites and sounds of the nation’s capital were remarkable.

On a cold morning with mist hanging in the air, we walked into another remarkable place — an eerily silent chasm where the names of 58,245 American sons and daughters are etched into dusky granite.

I had a list of names in my pocket that day. I took the list and found one of the workers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “These are men that fought with my father,” I said. “I want to find out if they made it.”

The fellow there took me to a book and helped me find the names. Of the four names I had, only one escaped the engraver’s hand. I took pictures of the others.

I returned home after the trip and showed my father the photos. It was one of the few times I’d seen him display any emotion. In a way, the appearance of the names on the wall was a final word — those men weren’t coming home.

For my father, a military advisor to South Vietnam, the war did not end when he left the country wounded, having lost many from his band of brothers, and it did not end with the pronouncement from the wall.

Today he carries Vietnam with him everywhere he goes. His memories of the war are a vivid and an inseparable part of who he is. Conversations with him frequently turn to his experiences in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. He watches countless documentaries about the war.

I understood him better after I had been to Vietnam multiple times myself. Although no one shot at me, the smell of the air, the sounds of the jungle, and the hum of a Saigon street corner stay with you. Over the years I have watched as he has struggled with the ghosts of Vietnam.

Still, he has lived with integrity and with dedication to his ideas, his family and his faith. He is strong. He strives to do what is right. His life — although one that never will be recorded in a history book — has been that of a great man.

Recently, I’ve watched as John Kerry has pounded the drum of Vietnam in political meter. “Hero,” “duty” and “honorable service” are terms cast before crowds at his appearances. I see contrast in these two men, my father and Kerry.

My father spent a considerable amount of time in combat. Yet, he does not point to his wounds and ask for accolades. Each wound has a story, yes, but the stories do not have glorious endings. Ask him how he got “that wound” and he will tell you about men who died around him when he received it. He doesn’t feel as if his service or his wounds entitle him to ascend to a position of power.

In fact, he is content to be anonymous. He wears the badge of honor for having served among his brothers with sublime humility.

I am grateful that Kerry served in Vietnam. Certainly, Kerry was heroic for a time if his own tales of battle are true. That being said, I do not see the same qualities in him today as I do a great man like my father, which leads me personally to question Kerry’s accounts of battles won.

My father has often said that in the chaos and terror of combat, some men see what never occurred and other men forget what happened. Combat is an intensely personal experience, he said, where men — although they fight together — are always alone. No two men often see the same thing, tell the stories alike or recall battles in the same way.

We can choose to trust this man’s testimony or that man’s recollections about events now nearly 40 years old. But we can never know for sure what circumstances surrounded Kerry’s valorous achievements, or lack thereof, in Vietnam. In short, we simply should remove Vietnam from discussion in this presidential election, for this election is not about an American’s past. It is about the nation’s future.

Choosing a president is about investing power in the leader who will best protect our country and its citizens and project power in the world in a manner that liberates the oppressed. If service in Vietnam qualifies an individual to be president, then there are any number of more highly decorated men for the position.

Then again, Kerry has to be willing to stop discussing Vietnam. That I do not believe he will do because he benefits from drawing analogy between the division of the United States during the Vietnam era and the division which plagues us now.

My father’s birthday is in a few days, but I can assure you that as he blows out the candles on his cake, he will not be thinking of presents or birthday wishes. He will likely be thinking of men who steeled their courage at his side more than 40 years ago. Those men, truly noble and great men, gave their last full measure of devotion to liberating the oppressed people of Vietnam.

My father will also probably think about those Vietnamese people he was forced to leave behind and who now suffer under communism. I wonder if Kerry does the same, or if he views his service and those left behind as political capital that will help him obtain the prize of power.
Gregory Tomlin is director of public relations at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of a Ph.D. dissertation, “Hawks and Doves: Southern Baptist Responses to Military Intervention in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973.”

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  • Gregory Tomlin