Fifty years have passed since I last saw many of my high school classmates. Frankly, I could have waited another 50 before seeing them again.
No bitterness here, just the realization that most of them remain so out of touch with the sacrifices and service made by me and a handful of their Vietnam veteran classmates. That our McKinley Tech Class of '65 reunion committee in Washington never thought of recognizing their veteran classmates shouldn't have come as a surprise.
After all, when it comes to those Americans who halted teenage lives to join the military for wartime service to this country, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence and outright hatred for the war were ways of life for the non-serving. Few in power even wanted to admit it was a war, with politicians and the media alike euphemistically calling it "the Vietnam conflict."
Still, this slight may have hurt the most, more than being slurred by fellow Americans, of being spat on and turned down for jobs because of the myth that Vietnam veterans were “crazy” and “baby killers,” even after decades of rejected Agent Orange claims and Vietnam buddies' deaths at the hands of the Veterans Administration.
One would have thought that my ex-classmates would have been the first to celebrate our collective sacrifice, that they knew and appreciated that it was also for their future security that we enlisted or were drafted. I allow that maybe they couldn’t have understood the political ramifications of the Vietnam War, but I thought surely they, as witnesses to headlines and history, would have celebrated their old classmates who became casualties of war in one way or the other.
I don’t know whether I should be ashamed of them or for myself for daring to suggest that their weekend of reunion memories should have included a brief recognition of their veteran classmates. Most of those things school chums at my predominantly black high school's graduating class (99 percent) went on to college, created successful careers in education, government, law, medicine – you name it, these middle-class children did it. For me, I had little choice except join the military. My parents weren’t able to afford college and, frankly, my grades were only so-so back then.
So, it took me a few years to catch up after my four-year Air Force enlistment. It took 10 years to earn that bachelor’s degree. After my cut-rate GI Bill for college stipend ran out in three years, I left college to work full-time as a court stenographer, later re-enrolling to get that elusive degree in journalism. My professional life has since taken me around the globe and across this nation as a newspaper reporter, editor, college professor and public relations practitioner.
This Veterans Day, and with each passing November 11th I find the moment less authentic. For me, and I am sure with countless other Vietnam vets, “the Vietnam conflict” simply mirrors the widening schism between those who served in the most unpopular war in American history and the rest of the nation. Today, less than 1 percent of all Americans are in the uniformed services. That’s the lowest percentage of Americans in uniform in the last 100 years. Most military families will attest to their second-class status as citizens, with many depending on food stamps and food banks while their loved ones are deployed.
Seems that this country – along with my now-senior citizen classmates – remain all too happy to get on with their lives and leave the fighting to someone else. National service was and tragically remains absent from the American agenda.
So be it! It will be the nation's loss, sadly, when most Americans fail to have their own skins in the game of serving this great country.
As for us Vietnam Vets, we are more than willing to thank our own selves for our service. We did our duty – no thank you is necessary.