Decades later, local Vietnam veterans recognized for their service and sacrifice

Veterans Voices

(WJHL) — In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act, authorizing the Secretary of Defense to conduct a program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

The Commemoration was officially inaugurated at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Memorial Day in 2012.

This week, hundreds of veterans across the Tri-Cities were honored by Rep. Diana Harshbarger.

Receiving a congressional commendation for serving in the Vietnam War was something most veterans in the 1960s and 70s never dreamed of when they first returned home.

“People just didn’t believe in what we were doing. They may have had a good reason…I don’t know,” Army veteran Johnny Hurst said. “We were just soldiers. We had nothing to do with the government. We just {did} what we were supposed to do.

“What the government [did] had nothing to do with us whatsoever. And they took it out on us instead of the government.”

While some soldiers volunteered, many were drafted into the war. According to the Selective Service, more than 1.8 million men were inducted into military service during the Vietnam War.

“In 1966, you didn’t have much choice,” said Roger Smith, an Army veteran. “When you graduated from high school in ’65, you had a pretty good chance of going in and going to Vietnam. I went and volunteered. I figured, ‘Might as well go on because I’m going to go anyways.'”

More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam and 150,000 were injured. Among those that got to come home, many are still carry the impact decades later.

“I have Agent Orange, and I’ve been one of the more fortunate ones that I’ve gotten to it early enough, but I still have problems: hands, bones, heart, blood vessels about anything…it’s always bothering you,” Navy veteran James Spires said. “It’s always there, it’s always in the back of your mind.”

Agent Orange was a herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear vegetation during military operations in Vietnam.

“You didn’t die there with it. You brought it home and died later,” Spires said. “My brother who was with me over in ‘Nam, he contracted Agent Orange and it took almost 40 years to kill him.”

As the memory of the Vietnam war fades, so does the number of people who fought there.

“We lose 390 a day of these Vietnam veterans, and there were over 2 million of them so we have to be diligent in thanking them now,” Rep. Harshbarger said. “This is for posterity. This is what we do this for. They did it to protect us. I’m doing it as a ‘thank you’ 50 years later.”

Those who served in Vietnam say they are seeing history repeat itself.

“Vietnam and Afghanistan are similar for the fact that we tried to prop up an unstable government,” Smith said. “The government in Vietnam was unstable from day one. The United States knew that the South Vietnamese as a whole wouldn’t fight; they didn’t have anything to fight for. The government was corrupt. Just like Afghanistan, the government was corrupt. Iraq, the government was corrupt, and we keep trying to uphold these governments. It don’t work.”

By presidential proclamation, the Vietnam War commemoration continues through Veterans Day of 2025, commemorating the war’s 50th anniversary over a 13-year period.

According to Harshbarger’s office, veterans or their family members are eligible to receive a commemorative lapel pin and certificate of special recognition through the congresswoman’s office if they live in the First Congressional District of Tennessee and fall into one of the following categories:

  • Served on active duty at any time during the period of November 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, regardless of location of service.
  • Are an immediate family member (parent, spouse, sibling, or child) of a former, living American POW from the Vietnam War designated by the Department of Defense.
  • Are an immediate family member (parent, spouse, sibling, or child) of a veteran who is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and who is not listed as missing or unaccounted for by the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • Are the surviving spouse of a veteran who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during the period of November 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, regardless of location of service. 

A form has been posted to the congresswoman’s website for those wishing to apply.

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