His chest adorned with combat ribbons and medals, Lamar Crosby offered his gratitude to those who thanked Vietnam veterans, even if it was belated for nearly 40 years.
The keynote speaker at Tuesday’s Veterans Day ceremony at Veterans Park, Crosby served a tour of duty in Vietnam, as a young officer with the 1st Infantry Division. His unit was stationed along the routes used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces to infiltrate South Vietnam.
“Parts of it seem like it was just today,” he said of his combat action, which took place in 1969.
While the experience of war in Vietnam was similar to those accounts from other conflicts, the war in Southeast Asia was also much different from previous involvements, Crosby pointed out.
Instead of being plunged into war or without an official declaration — such as what followed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the North Korean incursion across the 38th parallel — “we kind of eased into Vietnam,” Crosby said.
In 1961, the U.S. had just a few hundred service members in Vietnam, there as advisors. Three years later, the number swelled to 23,000 and in 1966, there were more than 250,000 Americans in uniform in South Vietnam. The number of servicemen peaked at more than 500,000 in 1968 before the U.S. began withdrawing, eventually pulling all combat units out by the end of 1973.
Two years later, the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, fell to the advancing North Vietnamese forces.
But no matter where a soldier went in Vietnam, combat was never far away, Crosby remarked.
“In World War II, there was a front line, a distinct area where you made contact with the enemy,” he said. “In Vietnam, they were everywhere. There were no front lines. Everybody was in combat. The cooks and the clerks manned bunkers on the edge of the fire bases, just as the infantrymen did. The MPs were as likely to run into a land mine as any combat unit was.”
While the troops headed off to Europe in World War I and the millions of Americans who were sent off all over the globe in World War II had the support of virtually the entire nation, there was growing, and sometimes overwhelming, dissent on the homefront about fighting the Vietnam War.
“It was an unpopular war,” Crosby said. “There was an aversion to our involvement from day one. It grew to a crescendo by 1968 to the point that it drowned out everything else. Those of us who served felt and heard that.”
Crosby was one of about 200 soldiers whose Vietnam duty had ended and were flying back stateside. They had bought civilian clothes before boarding the plane and once they landed in San Francisco, they went into the restroom, tossed away their uniforms and changed into civvies so no one would recognize them as soldiers.
“The thing that had the biggest impact on us was the way people talked about the war and talked about the soldiers who were in the war,” Crosby said. “It was common to be called ‘baby killer’ or be spit upon. The press seemed to be totally against the war. To us who served, it seemed everybody was like that. When we came back, there weren’t any parades. There weren’t any thank-yous.
“That aversion to the war and how we were characterized colored how most veterans of Vietnam felt and probably has a lot to do with why a lot of Vietnam veterans have problems today. At least the good news is today there is recognition of that service, and that’s a good thing.”
Crosby spent 27 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel. He received numerous decorations, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but his decoration above his medals, his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, means the most to him.
The travails of combat, Crosby said, were akin to those from other wars.
“We were young men from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “There were a lot like myself because we knew the letter from the draft board was about to come, and we joined to have a little more control of where and when we went. Regardless of the background, combat helped us grow up fast. We learned a lot about ourselves. We learned to be a part of a team. We learned to depend on our fellow soldiers and to have each other’s back. We learned about leadership, heroism and the devastation of losing a fellow soldier.”
Rev. Jerry Roe Jr., the pastor of the Springfield United Methodist Church who once served aboard the USS William H. Bates, a fast-attack submarine, asked during his invocation for God’s forgiveness when people romanticize war.
“Before 1960, Vietnam was a place on the map with unpronounceable names and a language and a people we couldn’t possibly understand,” he said. “But it was a place where there was a fight to stop the aggression of communism and bring democracy to a land. Today we celebrate and remember the lives of those who died in Vietnam.”
For today’s service members and veterans, they don’t serve by themselves, Crosby pointed out. Their families serve alongside them and also deserved to be lauded.
“Our debt to these heroes who have served our country can never fully be repaid, but our gratitude and respect can last forever,” he said. “Service to our country, regardless of the branch, is not easy. It’s a tough commitment that takes young men and women away from their home and their families. Even if they serve one tour, it’s a dramatic change in their life.
“All veterans have served in units away from home and away from their families,” he continued. “They missed the births of their children or freeze in sub-zero temperatures or deal with the heat of the jungles and far too often, they lost their life. It is a family affair. Military spouses have had to endure career interruptions, frequent changes of address, not having a place you can call home and a disproportionate share of the parental duties.”
As difficult as military service can be, it also can provide reward, Crosby said, even if it may not be monetary in nature.
“There’s the pride of developing one’s character, becoming a leader, serving a cause greater than your self-interest and knowing that our nation’s cause is the hope of the world,” he said. “Every man and woman who wears America’s uniform is part of an unbroken line of service, and unbroken line of achievement and honor. No single power has done greater good, shown greater courage, liberated more people or upheld standards of decency as have the armed forces of the United States. This is a legacy to be proud of.”
Though it’s been more than 40 years since the last American combat troops left South Vietnam, Crosby said the thanks now being extended to Vietnam veterans for their service, even in an unpopular war, is still welcome.
“We’ve been in continuous combat since 1990, and we’ve done a wonderful job of recognizing our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who serve us in the conflicts we’ve been in,” he said. “Everyone may not approve of the conflict, but we understand those members who serve in those conflicts are there for all of us.
“As that has happened, our Vietnam veterans have been brought forward and recognized. That, to me, is wonderful,” Crosby continued. “That makes all of us who served in Vietnam feel better about that time. It was an interesting time for all of us. We served proudly. We have felt like we had to hide when we got back, but we felt like we did something good for our country. Thanks for recognizing our service.”