They are unsung heroes who, out of pride and patriotism, volunteered to go to battle in a foreign land of poisoned jungles, landmines and booby traps. They survived combat only to realize that they had a completely different war to wage when they returned home.
They witnessed comrades in arms who one minute were beside them, laughing and talking – only to be blown apart the next in the blink of an eye by mortar fire.
They were the survivors of platoons of soldiers and Marines that evaporated in a barrage of explosions and enemy fire only because they stepped away from ground zero for a minute or two.
Many of these warriors came home minus arms and legs, battered and confused and angry, suffering unimaginable flashbacks of an unpopular war.
They survived the Vietnam “conflict” only to go home to recurring nightmares, cancer from exposure to Agent Orange – a chemical used in Vietnam to clear thick vegetation so that the enemy could be easily spotted from the air – and depression that drove many to alcohol and drug addiction, homelessness and despair.
These Vietnam-era veterans did not die in combat, so their names are not etched on The Wall in Washington, D.C. – a monument that they regularly visit to weep and mourn and remember their fallen comrades.
Eight years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund began to honor the survivors of that war by inscribing their names on an honor roll that is read each year on the third Monday in April – Patriots Day – at The Wall.
The fund is a nonprofit organization established in 1980 in Washington, D.C., with the charge of building a national monument dedicated to all who served with the U.s. military during the Vietnam War.
So far, 1,515 names of Vietnam veterans are included on the In Memory honor roll, according to Jan C. Scruggs, VVMF’s founder and president.
The only qualification for the honor is to have died from cancer caused by Agent Orange or have borne the “invisible” wounds of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which can cause alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness and suicide.
This year, 86 Vietnam veterans will be honored at the In Memory ceremony April 17 at The Wall. Among those to be honored is Waldorf resident and former U.S. Marine Jack Bradley, who lost his battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma June 27, 2005. His condition was caused by exposure to Agent Orange 40 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam.
Bradley’s widow, Jean, will attend the ceremony. The honor will be bittersweet, she said, because it was exactly two years earlier – on April 17. 2004 – that her husband received a Purple Heart for wounds he sustained in 1965 during a firefight in a village near DaNang.
It is somewhat fitting that Bradley will be honored at The Wall, where he traveled each month laden with flowers to lay at the monument where the names of his friends who served with him in Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, are etched in black granite, Jean Bradley said.
“He would be very touched by this honor,” she said. “Every month, we would go to The Wall and put flowers there for the Marines in his unit who died in the war. He always recognized them, and now, he’s joined his brothers. This is just a way for him to receive an honor his brothers have already received.”
There are more than likely a lot of deceased Vietnam veterans whose names should be included on the honor roll in Southern Maryland, but finding them is difficult because the VVMF only has the city and state service members put on their military induction papers, Gough said.
For instance, Jack Bradley’s residence is listed as Gaffney, S.C., where he grew up and joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
Four Southern Maryland residents are already inscribed on the honor roll: Joseph Denwood Heath Jr. of Dundalk and Robert Paul Burnett of Prince Frederick in Calvert County and John Patrick Evans of Leonardtown and Charles Thebaud Cullison Jr. of Lexington Park, Gough said.
Jack Bradley’s family will join his widow during the In Memory ceremony to stand behind an enlarged photograph of him while she reads his name. Following the ceremony, certificates bearing the honorees’ names will be placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and their names will be added to an In Memory honor roll book.
“Jack died because of being exposed to Agent Orange while he was serving his country,” she said. “There is very little recognition for combat veterans like him who weren’t killed there, but died later because of the war. This is a way for them to get the honor they deserve after suffering from the effects of the conflict.”