The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 1, 2012

Vietnam experience taught us how not to treat our troops

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — It resembled a scene from the 1953 Marlon Brando film, “The Wild One,” in which a motorcycle gang invades a small California town.

There were motorcycles everywhere Friday afternoon on the streets of downtown Enid.

But unlike the film’s gang, these bikers were not intent on mischief or mayhem, and were not young hoodlums.

Instead, these riders were bent on showing respect to the object they were accompanying, the 80 percent replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall that will take up permanent residence at Enid Woodring Regional Airport sometime next year.

These were not hoodlums, but law-abiding citizens, many of them military veterans.

And they were decidedly not young. Gray hair and age-worn skin were predominate.

“I can’t tell you how many old, gray-headed guys I’ve seen,” joked Don Allen, chief executive officer of the Vietnam Veterans Traveling Tribute organization, the group that sold the wall to the Woodring Wall of Honor committee.

Wherever the wall has gone, it seems, cycle-riding veterans have been there to escort it.

The replica wall, and the original it represents, means a great deal to these men.

They went to Vietnam and returned, while the wall contains the names of 58,272 of their colleagues who did not make it home.

Not that the troops who did return from Vietnam were treated very well.

Bob Farrell, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant and a Vietnam-era vet, told of being warned not to wear his uniform in public because “being a member of the United States military was not in best keeping of traditions of the U.S. government at that time,” he said.

In 1979, working as a Congressional military escort, Farrell made a trip to Hanoi, the former capital of North Vietnam.

He and his three fellow military escorts broke away from their shadows and made an impromptu visit to the site of the “Hanoi Hilton,” the notorious North Vietnamese prison where many American POWs were held in appalling conditions.

“In August, in 105-degree weather, 110-degree weather, I can tell you that chill went up our spine,” Farrell said.

During his time at the Pentagon, Farrell was spat upon and had blood thrown on him by protesters.

“Those times have changed, thank God,” he said.

And they have changed, he said, in large measure because of the experiences of those who served in Vietnam.

“Military men and women today have military veterans of the Vietnam era to thank for that,” he said.

Military members in uniform today are celebrated, not scorned.

Strangers walk up to them and thank them for their service.

In an airport during a recent trip, I witnessed a civilian buy breakfast for a pair of airmen in uniform.

The man was reluctant to accept thanks from the somewhat flustered young people, preferring instead to thank them for serving their country.

“Maybe we have learned as a nation the lessons of Vietnam not to treat our people like crap when they come home,” he said.

But don’t feel sorry for Vietnam veterans, says Allen, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

“We’re not victims, Vietnam veterans are not victims,” he said. “We’re proud, honest, God-fearing people. That’s all we want to be treated as.”

There were no parades for returning Vietnam veterans, no welcome ceremonies.

“It doesn’t matter about parades, it’s a mindset,” he added.

He doesn’t question the mindset, just its sincerity.

“Nowadays, there’s a lot going on for all the troops returning,” Allen said, “and those are great things. Hopefully we had a little bit to do with that. But going into the future it is really important that we understand that. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

“I’m tired of all the bumper stickers, guys, I’m tired of all the other stuff. Don’t tell me you support the troops. What the hell are you doing? What’s that mean?”

By bringing the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall permanently here, Enid has done something to support the memories of those who fought and died in Vietnam.

“This is a physical manifestation of actually, as the artillery guys say, putting steel on the target,” Allen said, “supporting our troops and standing tall.”

Enid and Oklahoma are known for their patriotism and their support of service members and veterans. But thus is not the case everywhere, it seems.

Scott Hakim, a Marine infantryman in both Iraq and Afghanistan, told NBC News about a female classmate at Rutgers University saying, “Why should we pay these guys to go to college?”

She was referring to the nearly one million veterans enrolled at U.S. schools under the post 9/11 G.I. Bill.

“Everybody who goes into the military is stupid,” she continued, “that’s why they joined the military instead of going to college.”

Hakim, who was wounded by an IED in Afghanistan and suffered a traumatic brain injury, took the girl’s remarks personally.

He vowed to out-study everybody in the class prior to the mid-term exam.

He received the highest grade in the class, 98 out of 100, while his unhappy classmate flunked.

This young lady should consider that if it wasn’t for people like Hakim and all those who have served in all our nation’s wars, she might not have the freedom to attend college.



Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.