On Fiftieth Anniversary of the Vietnam War, Durbin Honors the Men and Women who Served
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – In recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. ground forces entering Vietnam, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) made the following statement honoring the service men and women who fought in the Vietnam War, and calling for renewed efforts to provide Vietnam veterans the medical care and support that they and their families need today.
“It is fitting, and it is overdue, for America to thank all of those who served and sacrificed so much in the Vietnam War. But we owe them more than speeches and ceremonies. As President Lincoln told us in his Second Inaugural Address, we have a solemn duty ‘to care for him who has borne the battle.’
“Last March – nearly 50 years to the day after those first, young Marines landed in Da Nang – Senator Baldwin and I introduced a bill to expand the program to U.S. veterans of all wars. Our bill is called the VA Family Caregivers Expansion and Improvement Act. They were young once, but today the average Vietnam veteran is retired. Many still struggle with old wounds gained in service to our nation. As our nation and this Congress thank them for their service 50 years ago, I hope that we can also work together in this Senate to provide Vietnam veterans the medical care and support that they and their families need today.”
Full text of Durbin’s statement is below:
Senator Richard J. Durbin
Fifty Years Later, Recalling the Vietnam War and Those Who Fought It
MR. DURBIN. Mr. President, this week the United States held a special ceremony to commemorate one of the longest wars in our nation’s history – the Vietnam War. It was a ceremony to honor the men and women who served in that long and searing conflict, especially the more than 58,000 young Americans who did not come home from the battle.
The Congressional ceremony was held to commemorate what organizers, including the Department of Defense, call the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The milestone is a little ambiguous. You see, it was 50 years ago – on March 9, 1965 – that the first U.S. combat forces -- 3,500 members of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade – arrived at the port city of Da Nang, in what was then the Republic of South Vietnam.
The arrival of those young Marines marked the beginning of a massive U.S. military buildup that last nearly a decade. But America’s military presence in Vietnam actually began several years earlier, with the deployment of military advisors to assist the South Vietnamese armed forces.
All told, 9.2 million Americans served in uniform during the Vietnam War; 7.2 million Vietnam-era veterans are still with us, along with 9 million families of Vietnam-era veterans.
Most of the men who served in Vietnam came home to build successful careers and strong families. More than a few went on to serve in Congress and we have benefitted greatly from their wisdom and continued commitment to duty.
I think of my friend, Senator John McCain, who endured unspeakable cruelty for years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He could have been released from that hell years earlier but he refused to leave while other American service members remained captive.
Senator McCain has been a powerful voice in calling for America to honor our commitments under the Geneva Conventions to never use torture – to remain true to our word and our values even in war. I respect him deeply for his principled stand.
I think of other friends and former members of this Senate who served in Vietnam. Bob Kerrey, the former Governor and United States Senator from Nebraska, lost a leg while serving as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Chuck Hagel, another Nebraskan, served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam alongside his brother Tom. He came home to build a successful business career, got elected twice to the United States Senate, and went on to serve as America’s Secretary of Defense.
John Kerry was a diplomat’s son – truly, a “fortunate son” -- who served with distinction in Vietnam as a Navy lieutenant from 1966 to 1970. When he returned home, he became an eloquent voice among those calling for an end to the war in which he had fought. He went on to serve his state of Massachusetts as lieutenant governor and then represented his state for nearly 30 years in this Senate. He now represents our nation’s interest on the world stage as United States Secretary of State.
One of the bravest men I have ever met served in Vietnam and then served in this Senate. His name is Max Cleland. Max went to Vietnam as a 6 foot, 2-inch Marine. One day in Vietnam he stepped on a landmine. The explosion ripped off both of his legs and one of his arms. Max Cleland went on to serve in the Veterans Administration under President Carter and later as a member of this Senate – an amazing man.
In all, more than 153,000 US service members were gravely wounded in Vietnam – wounded seriously enough to require hospitalization.
Others sacrificed even more; 58,220 American service members were killed in action during the Vietnam War.
The Americans who died in Vietnam ranged in age from 6 years old to 62. Six in ten were just 21 years old or younger. Their names are carved into that sacred slab of black marble, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
In the four decades since the end of the War, thousands more Vietnam veterans have died from physical and psychic injuries suffered in that war – dying from causes ranging from cancers caused by exposure to the deadly chemical defoliant Agent Orange, to the agonies of post-traumatic stress.
Fifteen years ago, Congress authorized the placement of a plaque near “The Wall” to honor these “men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service.” We remember and honor their service, too.
Every American my age and a decade or so younger knows someone who died in Vietnam or a friend whose father, brother or husband never came home. These young men are still missed deeply by their families and friends and remembered by a grateful nation.
The city I grew up in, East St. Louis, Illinois lost 56 young men in Vietnam.
The City of Chicago lost 959 young men in the Vietnam War. Let me tell you about one of them: Marine Lance Corporal Mike Badsing. He was among those first 3,500 Marines who landed at Da Nang 50 years ago – a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, C Company. The 1st Battalion suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine battalion in any war – a grim distinction that led North Vietnam’s Communist President Ho Chi Minh to call them “The Walking Dead.” The nickname stuck.
Mike Badsing attended St. Edward grammar school, where he played football, basketball, and Chicago 16" softball. He was the youngest of five kids. One of his older sisters is a nun today.
He left Chicago for Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1964. About 10 months later – Sept. 6, 1965 – his platoon came under fire and Lance Corporal Badsing was hit in the abdomen by a sniper shot, becoming the first Chicago-area Marine killed in combat in Vietnam.
He was buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois. A half-century later, Marines still visit his grave, often drinking a few Old Style beers in their friend's memory.
My adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois – also President Lincoln’s adopted hometown – lost 40 young men in combat during the Vietnam War. Among them was an Army helicopter pilot named Captain Michael Davis O’Donnell.
Mike O’Donnell died on March 24, 1970, when a rescue helicopter he was piloting crashed in dense jungle in Cambodia, 14 miles over the Cambodia-Vietnam border. He had gone into Cambodia to rescue a Special Forces reconnaissance team that was about to be overrun by enemy soldiers. He and his crew had gotten all eight members of the Special Forces team safely on board and were taking off when their “Huey” helicopter was hit twice by enemy missiles. It was one week before President Nixon announced publicly that American forces were even in Cambodia.
All 12 men aboard the Mike O’Donnell’s Huey died, but it wasn’t until 2001 that their remains were identified and returned. Today, they lie buried together at Arlington Cemetery.
Mike O’Donnell was 24 years old when he died. He was promoted posthumously to the rank of major.
In addition to being a soldier, Mike O’Donnell was a talented musician and a poet. During his life, he shared his poems with only a few close friends. After he died, soldiers in his unit found a notebook he kept, filled with 22 of his poems, which they saved and brought home.
Just as “In Flanders Fields” has become the unofficial homage to World War I, a poem by Michael Davis O’Donnell has become the unofficial poem of the Vietnam War. It begins with the words, “If you are able, save a place inside of you.” Google that line and you will find nearly 75,000 hits.
Mike O’Donnell’s poem was carried in combat by untold thousands of men who served in Vietnam. It was read at the dedication of “The Wall,” the national Vietnam War Memorial, in Washington, D.C. and it is etched into many smaller Vietnam memorials across America.
Here is the whole poem:
If you are able,
save them a place
inside of you
and save one backward glance
when you are leaving
for the places they can
no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say
you loved them,
though you may
or may not have always.
Take what they have left
and what they have taught you
with their dying
and keep it with your own.
And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind.
Captain Michael Davis O'Donnell
1 January 1970
Dak To, Vietnam
Less than three months after writing those words, Mike O’Donnell died.
Along with the 58,220 Americans who died there, the Vietnam War claimed the lives of more than a million Vietnamese men, women and children.
It is fitting, and it is overdue, for America to thank all of those who served and sacrificed so much in the Vietnam War. But we owe them more than speeches and ceremonies. As President Lincoln told us in his Second Inaugural Address, we have a solemn duty “to care for him who has borne the battle.”
Six years ago I asked my friend, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, if I could introduce a bill she had been working on before she moved on to a bigger and better gig. She agreed, and I introduced a bill creating what is now called the Veterans Caregiver Program, to help the families of U.S. service members severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program provides family caregivers of post 9/11 veterans who have suffered catastrophic injuries with training and a small stipend so they can care for their loved ones at home, rather than sending them to nursing homes. The program helps these families know that they are not alone and not forgotten.
Today, 20,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan participate in the caregivers program. That is more than five times the number the VA originally estimated would sign up.
And the Veterans Caregiver Program doesn’t just help those families; it helps American taxpayers. Caring for severely injured veterans in the Caregivers Program costs the VA $36,000 per veteran, per year. Compare that to the average $332,000 per veteran, per year it costs the VA to care for these veterans in nursing homes.
When we started the Caregivers Program, we had to limit it to post-9/11 veterans and their families. But we know now that it works. It saves families and it saves taxpayers money.
When he chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, our colleague, Senator Bernie Sanders said repeatedly that we should expand the Caregivers Program. He was right.
So last March – nearly 50 years to the day after those first, young Marines landed in Da Nang – Senator Baldwin and I introduced a bill to expand the program to U.S. veterans of all wars. Our bill is called the VA Family Caregivers Expansion and Improvement Act.
They were young once, but today the average Vietnam veteran is retired. Many still struggle with old wounds gained in service to our nation.
As our nation and this Congress thank them for their service 50 years ago, I hope that we can also work together in this Senate to provide Vietnam veterans the medical care and support that they and their families need today.
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