ROBBINS: Vietnam vets betrayed again

Pentagon bureaucrat wants to abridge 50th-anniversary ceremonies

James Robbins – Nov 10, 2010

The 50th-anniversarycommemoration of the Vietnam War should be a time of reflection and redemption,when a grateful country pays a long-standing debt to veterans who nobly foughtin the conflict but came home to scorn and spit. But if a Pentagon bureaucrathas his way, the Viet vets will be denied their rightful honors once again.

In 2008, Congress authorized thesecretary of defense to “conduct a program to commemorate the 50thanniversary of the Vietnam War” to “thank and honor veterans of theVietnam War,” “pay tribute to the contributions made on the homefront,” highlight technological advances during the war and “recognizethe contributions and sacrifices” of U.S. allies. The Defense Departmentalso was charged with coordinating, supporting and facilitating “otherprograms and activities of the Federal Government, State and local governments,and other persons and organizations in commemoration of the Vietnam War.”The proposed budget for the commemorations was $100 million, which was lessthan the amount spent on the World War II and Korean War commemoration efforts.For example, the 1984 commemoration of the Normandy landings alone cost $38million.

The commission charged withexecuting this mission sought a commemoration that would be in keeping with thespirit of the intent of Congress. The idea was to have a series ofcommemorations that would begin in 2009, 50 years after the July 8, 1959, VietCong attack at Bien Hoa killed Army Maj. Dale R. Buis and Master Sgt. ChesterM. Ovnand, the first two names on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.The commemorations were slated to continue until 2025 and the 50th anniversaryof the fall of Saigon.

According to a source familiarwith the workings of the commission, it proposed a series of events to takeplace at various locations around the country to maximize opportunities foraging Vietnam vets to attend them. The events were designed to combinesymbolism with substance and were chosen carefully, with input from aninteragency group of historians. One planned event was to take place in thefall of 2011 to commemorate the 1965 battle in the la Drang Valley, dramatizedin the film “We Were Soldiers.” The event was to be held in Auburn,Ala., home of retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold G. “Hal” Moore, whocommanded the troops in the fight. Gen. Moore is emblematic of the veteranpopulation in more ways than one; he is in poor health, and members of thecommission fear he may not be available to attend the event. According to theDepartment of Veterans Affairs, 300 Vietnam vets are dying every day, and asour source asked, “Why are we waiting to get this started?”

Enter Michael L. Rhodes, directorof administration and management at the Pentagon. His office has been givenoversight over the anniversary commission, which he has downgraded to a”planning staff.” Mr. Rhodes has made meaningful work by thecommission next to impossible and has sought drastically to scale back theplanned commemorations. According to an August action memo prepared by Mr.Rhodes for Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and obtained by The WashingtonTimes, he urged Mr. Gates to reject the proposed commemoration program andadopt instead a “targeted” $30 million program. The memo describesthe new approach as “a dignified and meaningful DoD Program of nationalrecognition [that] need not be tied to the full timeframe of U.S. militaryinvolvement” and that will “provide nation-wide participation, whileutilizing the resources involved in the most effective manner.”

Mr. Rhodes’ plan cuts the timeframe of the commemoration down to 2015-18 and inexplicably features a kickoffin his former home of Honolulu, which is not exactly a resource-effectivelocation. Hawaii is inaccessible for most veterans and is in a time zone wheremost Americans could not watch the event live on television.

In May, the commission met withrepresentatives of 60 veterans organizations to solicit their views. They hadhoped to create an advisory board with representatives of officer and enlistedranks from each of the services. Our source said Mr. Rhodes would allow onlyone veteran, at most. The commission had planned to meet in October withrepresentatives of 200 museums, libraries and educational institutions to helpcoordinate efforts and fulfill the mandate from Congress to work with otherentities. The week before the meeting was to be held, Mr. Rhodes ordered itcanceled and further ordered that no other outreach efforts be undertaken. Oursource also said Mr. Rhodes ordered that information on the website be cut backso as not to set “unrealistic expectations.”

The 50th anniversary of theVietnam War is too important to be left to someone with Mr. Rhodes’ limitedvision. This effort requires high-level attention to fulfill the bipartisanmandate from Congress. It needs an executive agent, preferably a Vietnam vet,who is enthusiastic about the mission and will not turn it into a shabby tokencommemoration. The Obama administration has a bad enough reputation amongveterans without signing off on this ill-advised plan. Whetherthe White House was involved in this affair or not, it surely will take theblame. Failing action from the executive branch, Congress shouldintervene to make sure the anniversary commemoration is undertaken in a waythat fulfills its intent. The Vietnam generation deserves better thanstripped-down, pro-forma honors. Its veterans were spit on once – they must notbe treated that way again.

James S. Robbins is senioreditorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of”ThisTime We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books, 2010).

Reprint withpermission of Dr. James S. Robbins


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