TRIBUNE COLUMN: The importance of honoring all veterans


Vietnam veteran Jim Alderman reacts during a therapy session for combat-related stress at the Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bay Pines, Fla. Oct. 29, 2015. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

It’s almost surreal that our country is at war half a world away, and we are carrying on our daily routines as if our men and women in uniform are not in danger, as if their families are not missing them and worrying about them every minute of every single day. It’s as if it’s just business as usual here…. that’s just not right.

I came of age during the height of the Vietnam War. In my early teens there was a nationwide campaign to write soldiers, and to wear MIA bracelets on our wrists and ankles. There was the name of an MIA on each one. People always hear the bad things about Vietnam, and there were plenty of them over there, but here, when people remembered the war at all, they usually knew or were related to someone who was serving during that time.

TV commercials showing soldiers sneaking into their homes to surprise families at Christmas sold a lot of coffee. Hallmark made a fortune on cards. Girls wore class rings around their necks, tied with velvet ribbon, hoping that their sweethearts would make it back home. Too many didn’t…

The ones that did make it home didn’t get the hero’s welcome that former returning soldiers had enjoyed. They left home, family and everything familiar to fight a war that became unpopular for a whole lot of reasons, many of them politically motivated. Still, they left here for the same reasons that their fathers and grandfathers went to war…to protect their loved ones and to preserve our way of life, to help to stop the spread of communism and to end genocide and the other atrocities of war. They fought in swamps, rice paddies, and overgrown forests and jungles. They were shot down from helicopters, ambushed from high in the jungle canopy, and blown out of their beds at night.

War sucks the life out of a whole generation of young men in more ways than just the killing of those boys who left home smiling bravely for their families, too green and full of bravado to realize they should be scared.

They learned to be afraid in Concord, Gettysburg and on the beaches of Normandy, in France, Germany and Japan. And in Saigon, they learned, alright. Now they can’t forget…

War took the lives of men in the prime of life, those who could have become statesmen, cowboys, streetcar conductors or even president. They left for their various wars in high spirits most of the time, believing that they were all invincible. It must have come as a huge shock to see some of the other invincible soldiers falling beside them…

An estimated 25,000 American Revolutionaries died during active military service. About 8,000 of these deaths were in battle; the other 17,000 deaths were from disease, including about 8,000 – 12,000 who died while prisoners of war, most in rotting prison ships and makeshift prisons. The number of Revolutionaries seriously wounded or disabled by the war has been estimated from 8,500 to 25,000. The total American military casualty figures are somewhere around 50,000.

The U.S. Civil War was incontrovertibly the bloodiest, most devastating conflict in American history, and the exact total remains unknown as to just how many men died in Union and Confederate uniforms. (It now seems that a long-held estimate of the war's death toll might have undercounted the dead by as many as 130,000. That is 21 percent of the earlier estimate – and more than twice the total U.S. dead in Vietnam.)

In WWI, military and civilian casualties combined to account for the staggering death toll of more than 41 million. Military deaths accounted for 116,708 from all causes.

WWII, with its mass killing machine, the atomic bomb, was the deadliest in terms of total military and civilian deaths. The reported death toll was in excess of six million. This was estimated to be about three percent of the total world population in 1940. U.S. military deaths accounted for 407,300. Many of them were from the South.

On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began, the first military action of the Cold War. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. As far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. When, in July 1953, the Korean War came to an end, some 5 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives. (

And then came Vietnam. Suddenly it wasn’t history to us anymore. These were boys we all knew. They picked cotton with us, went to kindergarten, sat beside us at ballgames or rode around town smiling and waving at girls.

The draft board drew their birthdays out of a wire tumbler as parents and girlfriends sat glued to the front of the black and white television with rabbit ears and froze when their loved one’s number was drawn. 

The Vietnam War cost America 58,000 troops, killed by the North Vietnamese army. Alabama soldiers accounted for 1,208 of that number. It was a war that devastated minds as well as bodies.

To show just what they were fighting against, in the decade following Vietnam, about 5 million Southeast Asians were brutally murdered by the communists…

That is not to say that it was worth the toll in human lives, not a single one of the soldiers above, from the Revolutionary War on down the line, was worth giving up, but they went so that you can freely go out and buy this newspaper, which you won’t have to hide when you get home for fear that someone will break in with a gun and shoot you for having it. They fought so that you can attend the church of your choice on Sunday (then came home to prayer being removed from schools, not by a foreign power, but by the elected officials of our own government). They fought in the Civil War to maintain a way of life that only a very small percentage of Southerners lived, or believed in, but they fought because they knew that their families were in danger, their land was going to be taken from them, and even the poorest sharecroppers fought because this was their home, and right or wrong, they defended it to the bitter end.

All wars have a back story. I’m sure that if we only knew some of the personal gain that profiteers pocketed from each war, it would make us sick. Wars are mainly started behind the closed doors of gentlemen’s clubs and on golf courses and in the private dining rooms of fancy restaurants. They are strategized by men with medals on their chests and cigars protruding from grim mouths, but make no mistake about it, they are won and lost by boys and girls forced to become men and women overnight…

And, for the most part these were all boys when they put on a uniform. Fighting quickly taught them to be men of valor, men who gave their lives, not only for this country, but for their friends who were freezing and praying along with them in foxholes and rice paddies. They left their childhoods back home in Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin and Alabama. They came home wounded in mind and body. They returned from Southeast Asia to a place they had been dreaming of…ball fields, corn fields, dances at the VFW on Friday nights, jumping from a sagging dock  into the cold water of a rock quarry and watching the sunset, swinging on the front porch with a girl who promised to wait, but didn’t …. They came home hoping to recover the years that they’d lost, but they couldn’t…. from Vietnam, they came home broken and in need of the understanding of countrymen that they fought to protect…but they didn’t get that, either.

But we did learn a lesson from that, even though it took decades, and when Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom came along, we knew that at all costs, we must support our troops, because without them, all of them, as far back as the 1700s, we would not live in the greatest country on earth.

Perhaps, even so long overdue as it comes, this year's Cullman County Veterans Day celebration, "Good Morning, Vietnam" showed them all that they are appreciated, that we are not the same people who failed them so miserably back in the days of hippies and free love. Hopefully, they can learn from the remaining veterans of wars before theirs, that what they did and what they saw can be put behind them, that life can be worth the effort, that all wars take a toll on those who see way too much blood, mud and the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Happy Veterans Day.