I’m the proud daughter of a Vietnam veteran, but my knowledge of what that truly means has always been limited. Our family’s talk on the matter never went much farther than the fact that my father was drafted and served in Vietnam at age 21. As a combat veteran, he has issues he is still dealing with these many decades later. I can’t remember it ever being said explicitly, but it was always known that the war was not a topic to be brought up.
I learned bits and pieces about the war in school, but never had the emotional or mental maturity to begin to really process it, and more importantly, what it meant for my father. Knowing that he served in the war was something never forgotten by my sister or me, but without a basis of understanding, it remained little more than a fact; being decades separated from the war, we hardly thought to ask. Now, 50 years after America’s official involvement in the war began, I have been struck with a desire for insight on the war and its deeply rooted effect on my father’s life, and through extension, my own.
I picked up a copy of LIFE’s new Vietnam edition that happened to be next to a register in a Philadelphia airport a few weeks ago. Without a second thought I bought it, not knowing the effect its contents would have on me. Reading it on the plane ride is what caused me to delve into exploration on the war. It is titled “The Vietnam Wars: 50 Years Ago—Two Countries Torn Apart,” and provides a 112 page look into the war we think we know, and has candid content not often focused on. There are exhaustive timelines of the war, personal accounts of the deplorable treatment of Americans upon their return home, and many unreserved pictures of life in the country during war. Through its graphic images and unapologetically honest details of the war, LIFE sheds some light on the realities of war I had never before seen, and sparked my interest in learning about this aspect of my father’s life.
I may never have been able to ask my dad about his experience in the war, but the pictures and stories in the magazine address a lot of questions I never felt I could ask. They paint a brutal picture of life for any living thing that was present in Vietnam during the war, including Americans, but I would rather know about and understand this part of my dad’s life than be left in the dark.
The images depict a horrendous environment; there is a naked girl screaming in terror running down the road after her clothes had been burned off by napalm, and a gut-wrenching image of the American GI’s inside of a helicopter in the midst of a firefight.
With each moment of war frozen in time, I learn more about my father. Each picture of an American that I look at has my father’s face, and with each turn of the page I felt emotions for the war and my family that I had never before felt. With every picture, it becomes increasingly clear why my father has never been able to tell me about his time spent there, and maybe never wanted to.
In one section of the magazine, a blunt depiction of the anti-war protests in America are shown. No matter how extreme the protests appear in the image, an underlying theme is the same: the hatred for the Vietnam War, and undeservedly, the troops who fought in it. The most difficult section for me to read is titled “Coming Home,” and tells of the heart wrenching realities faced for troops returning home from the war. Despite the fact that they were fighting a war they didn’t necessarily want to fight and many had no choice in the matter because of the draft, they were spit on upon their return to America, and often asked “How do you feel about killing all of those innocent people?”
These were American citizens turned servicemen in the blink of an eye, and when they returned home from their required service, they were made to feel shame, many of them even by their families. I feel a burst of hope when I see a veteran wearing a Vietnam hat; it tells me that despite the physical and mental torment experienced by the Vietnam vets and the treatment they received when they returned home, today they feel deservedly proud of their service and dare to show the world. Just as I see my father’s face on every American in the magazine, I see his face in every Vietnam veteran that I thank for their service.
Vietnam vets experienced disgustingly unfair treatment when they returned from a war that a large portion of them did not even sign up for. Veterans of all branches of service, in times of draft or not, who saw combat or didn’t, deserve to be respected and thanked for their service to their country. Although Nov. 11 is the official day to recognize vets and put forth gratitude, it is something that should be done every single day.
Learning about the Vietnam War is the responsibility of every American citizen. Past this, remembering and revering those who fought there is a courtesy that all of us owe these brave soldiers. Through its detailed timelines and brutally real pictures of war and its victims, LIFE enlightened me on the war and permitted me an extension of my relationship with my dad that I’ve been unable to understand throughout my life.
Avery Twible can be reached at email@example.com