50 Years Later, Honoring Vietnam Veterans

Vietnam veterans never got the homecoming many feel they deserved. On Monday, a group of veterans, the Department of Defense and others will begin the first of many ceremonies to honor those who served and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War. Events will be planned over the next 13 years, concluding with the fall of Saigon. Many will gather Monday at the Vietnam Memorial Wall for a wreath ceremony, including President Obama.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, Memorial Day, the government is beginning 13 years of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, from the early combat operations of 1962 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Today is the first event. President Obama is joining the secretary of defense and other dignitaries at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They're expected to call on organizations ranging from veterans groups to corporations to help create events expressing gratitude to those who served in Vietnam. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Air Force Master Sergeant Lloyd Chuning(ph) was nearly speechless as he stood in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time.

MASTER SERGEANT LLOYD CHUNING: It comes home when you see all the names.

KEYES: Chuning and his wife Valerie stood at the midpoint of the reflective black granite wall as workers set up for today's ceremony. He thinks it'll be a good public acknowledgement for his service in Vietnam in 1970 and '71.

CHUNING: It's enough. It's a lot more than what was done in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KEYES: It was a tumultuous time in the nation's history, and tens of thousands protested against the war during the middle and late 1960s. Some were against the draft itself, and others were simply against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It was tough on those who fought there and their families.

JAN SCRUGGS: Many of us were castigated.

KEYES: Jan Scruggs is an Army Vietnam veteran and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

SCRUGGS: Our personal morality was questioned for taking part in that war, but, in fact, none of us had anything to do with starting that war.

KEYES: He spearheaded the effort to build the memorial wall, and worked with the government on today's event. Scruggs says no president has spoken there since 1993, and he thinks president Obama will have something important to say to veterans today, especially since this commander-in-chief was too young to be a part of the Vietnam era.

SCRUGGS: It's probably even better to have someone who is thanking, almost, his elders for something they did. There's a more humble quality associated with it.

KEYES: The Department of Defense hopes to work with corporations, state and local governments and other groups to put together events over the next 13 years. The end of the program will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Mike Rhodes, in the office of the Secretary of Defense, says each will be asked to hold at least two events per year, which will be featured on the website VietnamWar50th.com.

MIKE RHODES: Over then over the next couple of years, our focus is going to be planning and partnering and figuring out how we best do this.

KEYES: Rhodes says the national commemoration efforts will be aimed at reaching Vietnam veterans in their hometowns. Arlington Heights, Illinois is doing just that on its own today, by asking Vietnam veterans to march in the welcome home parade. Organizer Greg Padovani.

GREG PADOVANI: The whole town feels that it's overdue that we give them something like that.

KEYES: Vietnam Army pilot Bill Dussling says the special invitation from his hometown means a lot to him.

BILL DUSSLING: You know, you want to be welcomed by people that you know.

KEYES: Dussling says he's glad to have an appreciation for the time he spent in Vietnam and the worry it caused his family.

DUSSLING: I guess that finally, we're getting our welcome home, if you will. That's good.

KEYES: The Washington D.C. ceremony will include wreath layings and a flyover of military aircraft. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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