"Do you understand?"
I figured the question was ambiguous enough that it would stump the two young women I chatted with following last week's ceremony at American Legion Post 26.
I was convinced that their answer was going to be a very simple "no," figuring the events of the evening were something they likely couldn't fully comprehend. But I ended up getting caught off guard when they admitted they had a fairly good grasp of the significance of the Vietnam War and the dozens of local veterans of that war that were honored that evening.
Truth be told, when I was their age, my view of the Vietnam War was about the same that today's younger generation has regarding the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Back then, the Vietnam War was still current news and not history, and the outcome of World War II remained the focus of our world history classes.
But for the 3.4 million Americans that deployed to Southwest Asia during that nine-year war, it has a deep, significant meaning. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 700,000 of these veterans still carry the psychological scars from war more than 40 years after our nation withdrew the last of its combat troops from that part of the world.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the more than 50,000 Americans that died during that war. That includes 47,434 who died in battle with nearly 11,000 other deaths in theater.
What tends to irritate me to this day are those who still want to refer to Vietnam as a "conflict." When they use those words, it makes me wish they would speak to the service members who were out there fighting on the fronts line. Each of those combat veterans knows that this was not a "police action" as some had come to call it.
Make no mistake about it, Vietnam was a war with both sides unable to agree which political regime would gain control of the country and reunify it following the French occupation.
On one side was Ho Chi Minh, who saw the country under communist leadership. The other was led by South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, who desired the nation take a different direction before he was executed in a coup in 1963.
The animosity between both sides then erupted into a full-scale conflict with the United States throwing its full military might to help those south of the 17th parallel. Officially, the Department of Veterans Affairs contends that the Vietnam War began in 1964 following the Gulf of Tonkin incident and didn't officially end until the last U.S. forces withdrew in 1975.
However, many Vietnam veterans know all too well that our involvement in Southwest Asia began much earlier than 1964. For years, the United States was sending "advisors" to the region.
Translated, this meant that our service members were "advising" South Vietnamese forces to push to the north, engage the enemy and then "advise" their way back over the 17th Parallel. Among those we lost during this unofficial part of the war was Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., who was killed in action on June 8, 1956, becoming the first American to die in the war.
Having served with a number of Vietnam veterans during my years on active duty, I've had many of them share stories of the pain they endured on the front lines and when they returned home. Often, they came back to the United States and were immediately greeted with scorn and hatred versus the open arms and needed compassion they deserved.
Many of these veterans were spat on when they walked through the airport or called "baby killers." Of course, those making those accusations never served in the military nor did they understand what these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines had to endure, both physically and mentally.
This is why it is so important that this country pause regularly to honor those who served in Southwest Asia. Very few, if any of these men and women, were honored with a welcome home parade or had someone know that their sacrifice was appreciated.
Perhaps this is why the wrongdoings associated with the Vietnam War were corrected by the time the men and women of the U.S. armed forces were called upon to serve during Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait from the clutches of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military. When these veterans came home, they were treated with a much-deserved welcome home.
It's these celebrations that continue today as our brave service members continue to stand in harm's way in some of the most inhospitable regions of the world. While Desert Storm officially ended in 1991, today's military has seen no end to the ravages of war.
Following the Gulf War, we continued to fight the forces of evil starting with Operation Northern Watch and again when Operation Southern Watch started. Both of those operations came to a swift and sudden conclusion in the post 9/11 world when this nation turned its attention to fighting the spread of global terrorism, which today shows no signs of waning.
At the same time, we see renewed aggression being displayed by Communist North Korea, including four missile tests which drew immediate condemnation by the rest of the free world. It remains to be seen if those actions will require the United States to once again put more brave men and women in harm's way to resolve that war once and for all.
But for now, let's take a minute out of our busy week and honor the memory of those who served their country while defending the liberties of those living in Southwest Asia. Let us never forget their sacrifices and do what we can to honor their memory.
And most important, let's take a minute to ensure we tell them one very important thing -- welcome home.
-- Brian S. Orban