Luciano S. Martinez: Honor Vietnam veterans before they pass into history

(Art Greenspon | AP file photo) This April 1968 photo shows the first sergeant of A Company, 101st Airborne Division, guiding a medevac helicopter through the jungle foliage to pick up casualties suffered during a five-day patrol near Hue, April 1968. Two soldiers in the photo, Dallas Brown, bottom, and Tim Wintenburg, far right, recently reunited to talk to The Associated Press about the iconic photo and the war.

It seems to be a common activity for some older people to check the obituaries in the Salt Lake Tribune each day to see if someone they know has passed away recently. I am one of those curious souls. What I look for is to know whether a deceased person served a tour of duty like I did in Vietnam.

Veterans from previous wars have probably done a similar thing in their later years. Various veterans publications have indicated that Vietnam vets seem to be dying at an alarming rate now that so many of us have reached our 70s and beyond. Agent Orange is a leading contributor to many many of these deaths.

Some 3.3 million American men and women served on the ground in Vietnam, and now there are fewer than 1 million of these patriots who can give us a first-hand account of the war.

As a former history teacher at West High School, I know how important it is to keep the memory alive of what the Vietnam vet went through in the minds of our young people. For this purpose I have visited classes in all three of the high schools in the Salt Lake City School District and the University of Utah.

As I begin to speak, I ask the students if they personally know a Vietnam vet. Seldom will I get more than one positive response. I then tell them that when Vietnam vets meet each other for the first time they will often ask their compatriot the following three questions: 1) When did you serve in Vietnam? 2) Which unit did you serve with? 3) Where in Vietnam did you serve? The answers to these questions tell much about the veteran’s experiences in the war.

The Vietnam War was constantly changing. The veteran who served in-country in 1964 saw a different war compared to someone who served in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, or later on towards the end of American involvement in 1973. I have talked with vets who traveled there in old Navy transport ships in the early part of the war, and others who flew there in luxury airliners with beautiful stewardesses. Some served in towns and cities like Hue or Saigon, and others served in jungles, rice paddies and on mountain tops.

Vietnam vets served in many different units depending on their military specialty and branch of service. While we often see images of troops engaged in combat, most Vietnam vets did not serve in a unit specifically assigned a combat role. This does not mean that danger did not exist for all military members in Vietnam. It did, sometimes on a daily basis, such as having to travel on roads which could be mined by the Viet Cong, or simply walking down a busy street where a young boy might throw a grenade into a crowd. Mortar and suicide attacks often took place when least expected.

When we came home, many of us were not thanked for our service. Derision was common in places like San Francisco, where the antiwar movement was in full stride throughout the war. One of my Vietnam vet buddies told me that he took off his uniform with all of its medals and threw it away at the airport because of the verbal abuse he received as he entered the terminal. He changed into his “civvies” for the remainder of his flight home and tried to put the war behind him. His pride was shattered. It wasn’t until 40 years later that he could talk about this experience.

Over the past 50 years, I have met hundreds of Vietnam vets through my participation in veterans’ organizations. Many of these vets wonder why any of us had to go to Vietnam but, for the most part they are not bitter or angry about the war. They remember best the friends they made so long ago.

They love their country, and are some of the most patriotic Americans I know. Vietnam vets are often the first to welcome other vets home from their deployments overseas. Honor them for their service and sacrifice before they are but a chapter in a history book.

Luciano S. Martinez

Luciano S. Martinez served in Vietnam at Long Binh Post in the U.S. Army 1967-1968. He later spent 31 years as an educator in Utah schools.