My father had been home from his tour in Vietnam for five years when he, along with the rest of the world, watched US service members shove perfectly good helicopters off the flight deck of the USS Okinawa and into the South China Sea. This was Operation Frequent Wind, the final escape plan for US personnel upon the collapse of the war, and when the endgame finally came, it came fast.
The choppers were dumped overboard to make room for more choppers to land, drop their human cargo and be likewise dumped because so many people – soldiers and civilians – were running for their lives from the conflagration on the Vietnamese mainland.
It was the ignominious conclusion to an ignominious war the US had known for years it could not win, but kept fighting anyway for pride and profit. They knew they couldn’t win in Vietnam before my father got there, and yet they let him go anyway, he and nearly three million others who either volunteered like my dad or were pressed into service by the draft.
The war in Vietnam killed more than 58,000 US military service members. Millions upon millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and Thais were killed, maimed or displaced. My father kept walking for another 46 years after he came home, but a part of him he could never quite name died there, too.
The war is not over.
A needed extension of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act collapsed in the Senate last Monday at the hands of one man. The Act, according to Military.com, “would extend eligibility for disability compensation and health care to ‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans — service members who were aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships, some of whom have fought for years to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.”
The House of Representatives passed the legislation back in June by a vote of 382-0, making it one of the most bipartisan bills to move through that chamber in decades. The legislation was held up for a time by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the Trump appointee who replaced Trump’s last VA secretary, a self-confessed do-nothing named Peter O’Rourke.
Wilkie thought more research was needed on the effects of Agent Orange, despite the fact that the science on the effects of the chemical and its chief agent, dioxin, were established long ago. Over 2 million servicemembers were exposed to the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971. The deleterious effects of dioxin — cancers, psychological and neurological disorders, birth defects — have impacted the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of affected servicemembers. Like the war itself, Agent Orange has become a generational tale of suffering in both the US and Vietnam.
Secretary Wilkie, however, was not responsible for the Monday night demise of this veteran’s benefits bill. That grim honor falls to Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, chairman of the Budget Committee. When Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asked for unanimous consent to pass the bill, Enzi objected, and his objection killed the bill. “On this bill, many of us have been made aware of the potential cost growth and the budgetary and operational pressures that would happen at the VA,” said Enzi afterward. “They’re having a lot of problems, anyway.”
Critics were quick to note that Enzi, along with other Republicans who were crowing about the cost of the bill, had no such fiscal concerns the year before when they passed a trillion-dollar tax cut for rich people. “It’s disheartening,” said Democratic Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota on Twitter, “to see a bill that passed unanimously by the House blocked by a handful of Senators over supposed fiscal concerns when those same Senators voted to add trillions of dollars to the deficit last year to score a political win on the back of American taxpayers.”
The US veteran victims of Agent Orange exposure join a long line of people made to suffer at the hands of shabby priorities and simple greed. The long denial of Gulf War Syndrome because acknowledging its existence would cost too much. The sulfurous disgrace that was the treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center, who endured their wounds among the rats and roaches because proper care would cost too much. The ongoing calamity of veteran care at the hands of “budget hawks” and political hacks. Let them carve this on my tombstone, so many times have I said it: A nation that does not care for its war veterans has no business making new ones.
It wasn’t just the veterans of Vietnam who took it in the teeth last week. Somehow, the Trump administration (read: known fascist Stephen Miller, probably) has determined that refugees from the Vietnam War who have been here for 40 years somehow represent an existential threat to the nation and must be expelled.
“The Trump administration is resuming its efforts to deport certain protected Vietnamese immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades,” reported The Atlantic on Wednesday, “many of them having fled the country during the Vietnam War. In essence, the administration has now decided that Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the country before the establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam are subject to standard immigration law—meaning they are all eligible for deportation.”
“These are the boat people,” writes Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce, “the people who fled here because of the ill-begotten war that this country made on theirs, and who fled because the enmity of their countrymen made their staying in Vietnam impossible. They have made peace with those circumstances. They have made homes and lives here. That it reopens deep wounds that everyone thought were healed is irrelevant to a White House devoid of empathy or any sense of either honor or history. The cruelty is the point.”
Words like “shame,” “disgrace” and “horror” are too small to encompass the enormity of the malice inherent in such an act. It has no purchase in logic or morality, but serves only as yet another bowlful of blood spooned to Trump’s execrable base. Winnie Wong, progressive organizer and founder of People for Bernie, provided a simple description of the move to Common Dreams: “Trump wants to deport Vietnamese grannies who have been living here for more than 40 years.”
Why? Because f—k you, that’s why.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are collectively called the “Forever Wars” by the soldiers who fight them. The conflict in Vietnam remains a Forever War as well. It seemed to have no real beginning, is still without end, and all the big players act the same even across the span of years. The politicians who pushed and defended the Vietnam War were disgraceful then, and the politicians who continue to this day to use the war for political gain are disgraceful now.
I sit, run my thumb over the orderly bumps on my father’s old dog tags, and wonder if we will ever learn anything.