Ten years ago – March 17, 2003 – more than 50 American Gold Star “sons and daughters” who lost their fathers in the Vietnam War stood in the Singapore International Airport, watching on television as President Bush warned Saddam Hussein that failure to leave Bagdad would result in military action against his regime.
Within this Gold Star delegation were the now-grown children of men who served in every branch of the US military: enlisted, draftees and officers. Their fathers served in every era of the war; some were killed early in their tours of duty, others completed months and years of service, and some were still Missing in Action. Four of their fathers were posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The group was returning from an emotionally draining two-week trek across Southeast Asia, to see the places their fathers fought and died nearly four decades earlier. These sons and daughters who had just struggled to confront the war that had taken their fathers and robbed them of childhood innocence would return home to face war again.
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In June 2000, during a Father’s Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Sons and Daughters In Touch announced a first-ever historic trek to Vietnam. I was the first time such a large group of Gold Star family members traveled to see, taste and touch the country where 58,282 Americans were lost. Within a month of the announcement, two Veterans organizations – Vietnam Veterans of America and VietNow – pledged their moral and financial support for the historic and emotional journey.
On March 2, 2003, a team of 20 Vietnam combat veterans and nurses braved their own emotions to lead 50 Gold Star sons and daughters from Los Angeles to Vietnam. It was fitting that their pre-trip press conference was held at the Bob Hope Hollywood USO as many of their fathers had enjoyed USO shows hosted by Hope and other Hollywood celebrities. A message of support from the aging Bob and Delores Hope was delivered by their personal representative.
The delegation – with the theme “In Honor, Peace and Understanding” – set out to honor their fathers, achieve a degree of inner peace, and gain a better understanding of what their fathers experienced in Vietnam. Upon touching down in Ho Chi Minh City, they broke into an unrehearsed, celebratory round of applause – a sentiment that in the in the 1960s and 70s would have been unfathomable.
As they acclimated to the culture, the group stayed at Saigon’s famed Rex Hotel and met with representatives of the U.S. Embassy. They made day trips to the floating markets on the Mekong Delta, absorbed tours to historical sites, visited local restaurants and participated in random exchanges with locals.
They then broke into smaller teams for travel to the different corners of Vietnam where their fathers died in hamlets, jungles, rice paddies and atop craggy mountain sides. Months of planning and research enabled them to collect soil, burn incense and lay flowers while standing in the exact spot where their fathers were lost – their personal ground zero.
When they weren’t engulfed in absorbing their own loss, the sons and daughters consoled each other as they had experienced similar losses and faced similar emotions.
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Last month, America marked the 40th anniversary of “Operation Homecoming” – the return of U.S. Prisoners of War from Hanoi and the Department of Defense recently launched an effort to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. A total of 58,282 names are now inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a new Education Center is underway to tell the stories of each of them.
Vietnam is forever etched into America’s history and psyche.
Tracing a fathers’ footsteps enabled Vietnam to become a destination of remembrance, celebration and understanding rather than the source of enduring nightmares. When the time is right, perhaps this trip can serve as motivation and model for America’s new generation of Gold Star families – that they might trace the final footsteps of their loved ones.
Maybe our visit to Hanoi will be their visit to Baghdad, and our visit to Hue City theirs to Fallujah. Just as we crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels, maybe they’ll walk the streets of Ramadi. Learning how U.S. Veterans are working with Project RENEW to rid Vietnam of thousands of unexploded ordinances may engender a humanitarian project to rid Iraq of unexploded IEDs.
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Ten years later, debating the reasons for our nation’s invasion in Iraq is as rending as considering rationale for America’s involvement in Vietnam. Yet, discounting military families – especially Gold Star children – is a mistake never to repeat. In our age of instant communication, it’s easy to locate, connect with, and meet the needs of families torn apart by war.
Seventy-plus years after WWII, sixty-plus after Korea, fifty past Vietnam and so many other conflicts, and now ten years after the start of the war in Iraq, Sons and Daughters In Touch continues to champion the needs of Gold Star families from all wars. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden are focusing attention on America’s military and Gold Star Families, too, but there is more to be done.
The “Gold Star” designation is un-chosen and unending. It is a constant reminder of what was lost, and what might have been. Yet it preserves the memories of a fallen father or mother who wore our Nation’s uniform, and adds indelible words to the pages of American history. For Gold Star families, it can be a debilitating anchor or life’s springboard, inspiring them to move beyond the pain. Sons and Daughters in Touch hopes our journey will serve as inspiration to this latest generation of Gold Star Children.