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Government/Politics

Vietnam Veterans Seek And Find Healing At LBJ Library War Summit

This week thousands of Vietnam War veterans gathered at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.  They’re there for a three-day conference that takes a look back at a war where young men were drafted to defend a cause they didn’t always support and college campuses boiled over with anti-war protests.  More than 40 years after the end of the war, the memories are still painful.

Outside the LBJ Library sits a long, black metal wall that was trucked in for the conference.  It’s a half-scale-model of the black stone Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., that’s etched with the names of servicemen who were killed or were missing in action.

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Credit Ryan E Poppe
Family honor their loved ones memories with photos and letters.

At the traveling wall, veterans, now grey and grizzled, trace the names of long-lost loved ones. Some leave old pictures, letters and flowers beside the name.

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Credit Ryan E Poppe
Army Veteran Able White and his brother take photos of the names on the Wall That Heals to share with fellow vets back in San Antonio

San Antonio Army veteran Able White, who was stationed in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 , said he’s visited the wall in Washington, D.C., but he could never force himself to get really close.

“I’ve never been able to walk up to that wall and look at it, so this will be my first time today.  So, I’m going to grit through my fears and look for the names of my friends from high school that are on there,” White said.

White served as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, which was a job most soldiers didn’t want.  He would find the entry points into a labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves the Viet-Cong used to move troops and ammunition from battle to battle.

At the wall White wept silently as he placed his index finger on the names of his friends. His twin brother- also a veteran stood with him.

Inside the conference center, historians, public figures and veterans mull over memories and discuss lessons learned.  Baytown veteran Conrad Garcia served as a battlefield platoon sergeant and lost 15 of his men during his first battle.  He said this week’s conference is part of the healing process.

“What I get from it is what our presidents went through and some of the dilemma that they went through.  I don’t think they just haphazardly put us out there, they were trying to do the right thing. I really do believe they were trying to do the right thing,” Garcia said.

Corpus Christi veteran Arnoldo Chapa is among the veterans who were specially recognized by President Johnson’s daughter Lucy Baines Johnson.  He described this week’s conference as a cool glass of water on a hot summer day. 

“Ugh, I’m going to cry, I mean finally we got what we deserved, a 'welcome home,'” Chapa said after receiving his pin.

Chapa said there wasn’t much of a welcome for him when he returned from Vietnam. Many Americans opposed the war and scorned the soldiers involved.

“They didn’t really appreciate what we did. Was it our entire fault? I don’t know, we were 18 years old and young and we wanted to fight for our country,” Chapa said.

One of Lyndon Johnson’s requests upon the completion of his presidential library in 1971 was to not only showcase his successes as president, but to also to highlight the controversies, like the Vietnam War.  Johnson was blamed for escalating Vietnam; it was a move that spurred sometimes violent protests and contributed to Johnson's decision to not seek reelection.

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Credit Ryan E Poppe
President Johnson's daughter Lucy Baines Johnson.

Daughter Lucy Baines Johnson said this week’s summit is part of keeping her father’s promise.

“My father, essentially, gave his political life as far as he was concerned in an effort to get our men and women serving in the war theater back home.  When my father opened this library he wanted it to tell the story of our life and time with the 'bark off' and that meant the joyous achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, Medicare and Medicaid and also the very painful chapter for our nation, Vietnam,” Johnson explained.

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May 27, 1964: President Johnson expresses anguish over the Vietnam War to his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Source: LBJ Library

Johnson teared up as she greeted veterans at the conference, especially when she heard a story about their service during the war.  She said this week has been about learning from the past and making sure that all Vietnam vets know the Johnson family and a nation are grateful for their service.