By Lt. Cmdr. John Supple, Naval History and Heritage Command
Anyone who has been to a Navy Week in the last two decades knows how great it is to be a Sailor in the United States Navy. People buy you lunch. Businesses give you discounts. Pedestrians thank you, and the drivers show their appreciation with a friendly honk. All for doing something we volunteered to do, and (on most days at least) something we love doing.
Between Nov. 1, 1955 and May 15, 1975, the nine million Americans who served in the military were not treated so nicely. When our Sailors and Soldiers came back, the ‘welcome parties’ they received were quite different than ones we have today. Upon returning to their country and their hometowns, they were told not to wear uniforms out in town and not to talk about their service. While today’s service members are met at the airports with families waving flags and cheers, during that time service members were met with nasty names, jeers or worse. Some were volunteers, and some were drafted, but served their nation.
One way we say ‘thank you’ is by presenting a Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin. It is smaller than a quarter, but its value is immeasurable.
As part of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, the federal government authorized a program to start to right this wrong: The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. Launched by the president at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day, 2012, this small part of the Department of Defense is working with thousands of partners across the country to give the nine million veterans the thanks they deserve.
Our partners are a wide range of groups, from Fortune 500 corporations to military units to local church groups, and everything in between. They all commit to holding some sort of event where veterans from the era are welcomed and thanked. Sometimes partners invite officials from the Commemoration to join them, and I have been fortunate enough to attend a handful of these events and personally thank hundreds of veterans.
One way we say ‘thank you’ is by presenting a Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin. It is smaller than a quarter, but its value is immeasurable. The words “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You” are engraved on the back of each pin. It is a physical memento of our country’s appreciation, something that, for many veterans, was never clear until this effort.
Words cannot do justice to the emotions I see and feel when I present veterans the lapel pin. Grown men – who moments before seemed like the toughest dudes you’d ever met – start to tear up. People who are never at a loss for words (at least according to what their spouses tell me) are rendered speechless. All because the Nation is finally saying something it should have said long ago: Thank you.
Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of time. Of the nine million who served, only seven million are still alive, and sadly, according to the VA, we are losing hundreds of these heroes every day. If you belong to a service organization, religious group, own a business etc., please visit the Commemoration website and apply to become a Commemorative Partner. The Commemoration will send your organization an official commemoration flag, a certificate, and when you have an event, they will send you the lapel pins and other materials to present to your local veterans. The only cost is your time and willingness to say “thank you” to a group of men and women who need to hear it.
When you present lapel pins to veterans, be prepared to hear that it is the first time anyone has ever thanked them. As more Americans join this effort, we can ensure that it will not be the last time.