Mass vaccination sites for military veterans are helping with more than just health - they're enabling the country to honor our remaining Vietnam War veterans before they're gone for good.
We are losing about 557 Vietnam War veterans every day - over 200,000 now - due to old age, illness, or other factors. The Vietnam War Commemoration (VWC) program launched in 2012 with a single mission: honor every remaining survivor.
The pandemic paused in-person commemorations, so the VWC has rolled out a new campaign - using mass vaccination sites to first identify, and then honor, as many Vietnam War veterans as possible.
When individuals receive their vaccine, they are asked if they are a veteran. Then, when the veteran arrives for their second appointment, the VWC can publicly recognize them and thank them for their service .
Retired Maj. Gen. Peter M. Aylward, U.S. Army, is the director of the VWC. He has been working with the military branches to leverage the vaccine distribution sites.
“We are using the underway vaccine distribution to 300 million Americans, which arguably should reach every living Vietnam veteran in the U.S,” said Aylward. “Thirteen percent of the U.S. population is over the age of 65, that’s our veteran’s age group."
More than 8.7 million Americans served on active duty during the Vietnam War, including over 8,000 in the Coast Guard.
When veterans came home from the war in Vietnam, they weren’t appreciated the way that military members are today. The political climate was very different, and members were rarely thanked for their service.
“I got a letter from a guy out in California,” said Aylward. “He used a lot of colorful language to describe what he thought about how screwed up the disrespectful treatment of veterans was. I tried calling him three or four times and then I wrote him a personal note. And yesterday I received a letter back from him. He said he had tears in his eyes when he received the lapel pin and my handwritten note to him, personally thanking him for his service so long ago. There’s a huge emotional impact.”
The VWC was created to right those wrongs. The program was established under the secretary of defense and launched by presidential proclamation in 2012. It was designed to create a 10-year period where our nation could focus on thanking Vietnam War veterans and their families, including those who were held as prisoners of war, or listed as missing in action.
The VWC and its partners have held more than 20,000 events, handing out "Vietnam War Veteran" lapel pins to veterans and their surviving spouses and family members. The pins honor all U.S. veterans who served on active duty from Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975.
“We want to honor their service and sacrifice and show respect to them,” said Lt. Cmdr. Emily Brockway, the commemorations program manager for the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s a small thing,” said Brockway, “but the reaction from a lot of these veterans is they realize this is the most ‘thank you’ they’ve ever got. Grown men in their 60’s and 70’s tearing up. Someone just finally shook their hand and said ‘thank you for what you did.’”
Brockway, as the sole Coast Guard program manager for the commemoration, helps to bring awareness to the program and to organize Coast Guard unit-held events.
“We want to empower people at units to be creative and host events,” Brockway said.
From 2018 to 2019, Brockway organized an initiative she titled “12 by 12” with the goal of having 12 Coast Guard units, over a period of 12 months, honor 1,200 veterans.
“And we came pretty dang close,” said Brockway. “We had the [executive officer] of the Cutter Active hold an event out in Seattle at a minor league baseball game. A petty officer in Sector Lake Michigan did two events, recognized a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, and hosted tours at the base. Sector San Juan held an event with hundreds of veterans recognized from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and took them on a tour of the Heriberto Hernandez cutter. We had a Coast Guard event at the Navy Museum at the Navy Yard, still the largest event they have had held there.”
Aylward said that, though we can’t hold traditional-style events during the pandemic, we can still thank our veterans, not only on March 29, but whenever we meet one. They took the same oath to support and defend the constitution, they deserve our gratitude.
“We can make every day Vietnam veterans day. It’s our nation’s blood and treasure from a generation ago. Success is teaching our children how to love our country one Vietnam veteran at a time,” Aylward said.
If you are in the Coast Guard, you are already a commemorative partner of the VWC. You can request lapel pins or other materials to give as thanks to a Vietnam veteran. Please email Lt. Cmdr. Emily Brockway.