Have you noticed that the accumulated passage of time seems to sneak up on us, then all of a sudden, we become older than we think we are?
Now, those of us who served “in-country” — a phrase unfamiliar to those who did not — find our memory of service in Vietnam something akin to a walk through history.
I recently read a fascinating collection of data in The New York Times, by Charles Thompson of the Thompson Nelson Group, that was captivating. I share some of it below.
A statistic not included is the number of people who claim to have served in the Republic of Vietnam. That number is three or four times the 3 million who actually did.
In case you haven’t been paying attention these past few decades after you returned from Vietnam, the clock has been ticking.
“Of the 2,709,918 Americans who served in Vietnam,” Thompson writes, “less than 850,000 are estimated to be alive today, with the youngest American Vietnam veteran’s age approximated to be 60 years old.”
So, if you’re alive and reading this, how does it feel to be among the last third of all U.S. veterans who served in Vietnam? I don’t know about you guys, but this gives me the chills, considering this is the kind of information I’m used to reading about WWII and Korean War vets.
Some other figures about individuals in uniform who served in Vietnam:
n 9,087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the Vietnam era.
n 8,744,000 GIs were on active duty during the war (Aug. 5, 1964-March 28, 1973).
n 2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam. This number represents 9.7 percent of their generation.
n 3,403,100 (including 514,300 offshore) personnel served in the broader Southeast Asia theater (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, flight crews based in Thailand, and sailors in adjacent South China Sea waters).
n 2,594,000 personnel served within the borders of South Vietnam (Jan. 1, 1965- March 28, 1973). Another 50,000 men served in Vietnam between 1960 and 1964.
n Of the 2.6 million, between 1-1.6 million (40-60 percent) either fought in combat, provided close support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.
n 7,484 women served in Vietnam. Of that, 6,250, or 83.5 percent, were nurses. Eight of those nurses died in-country; one was killed in action.
n Peak troop strength in Vietnam was 543,482 (April 30, 1968).
n Agent Orange is taking a huge toll on Vietnam veterans, with most deaths somehow related to exposure to the defoliant. No one officially dies from Agent Orange; they die from the exposures which cause heart and organ failure, cancers and lung disorders.
n The first man to die in Vietnam was James Davis, in 1958. He was with the 509th Radio Research Station. Davis Station in Saigon was named for him.
In terms of deaths attributed to hostilities, that figure stands at 47,378. Non-hostility related deaths: 10,800.
n 61 percent of the men killed were 21 or younger. Of those killed, 17,539 were married. Five men killed in Vietnam were only 16 years old. The oldest man killed was 62 years old. West Virginia, as a state, saw the highest proportion of fatalities among its residents.
n More than 303,700 were wounded. Of that, 75,000 were severely disabled, and about a third of those were 100 percent disabled. Amputation or crippling wounds to the lower extremities were 300 percent higher than in WWII and 70 percent higher than Korea.
n There are 2,338 considered to be Missing in Action. Prisoners of War total 766, and 114 died in captivity.
As for race and ethnicity:
n 88.4 percent of the men who served in Vietnam were Caucasian, and 10.6 percent were Black. The vast majority of those who died, 86.3 percent, were Caucasian (includes Hispanics); 12.5 percent were black; 1.2 percent belonged to other races.
n 170,000 Hispanics served in Vietnam; 3,070 died there.
On the matter of “winning” or “losing” the war, 82 percent of veterans who saw heavy combat strongly believe the war was lost because of lack of political will. Nearly 75 percent of the public agrees it was a failure of political will, not of arms.
And yet, 91 percent of Vietnam War veterans — and 90 percent of those who saw heavy combat — are proud to have served their country.
And here’s the kicker: 74 percent of Vietnam veterans say they would serve again, even knowing the outcome.
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.