Why veterans are important to our nation’s history and future

Saturday, March 16, 1968, 07:30, Son My, South Vietnam:  About 100 U.S. soldiers drop down from helicopters onto the spreading coastal village of Son My, an agricultural district littered with rice paddies, dirt roads, irrigation canals, ditches, dikes, and lots of small, independent settlements.

It’s time for business, and the GIs waste no time in their mission. They are drudging through intense heat, vast jungle, and unfamiliar surroundings, but still, they keep on going.

Keyur Shah

Keyur Shah, who wrote this essay.

Morale is at a low point. The force had just been besieged by the Tet Offensive, a North Vietnamese attack that had taken some 30 men from the force.

One soldier stops to reflect on the tragedy of the war. The whole thing has been grueling so far, as battle blends into battle and even on the off days, roving guerilla bands take the lives of many of his dearest friends.

The toll of long, arduous fighting, of the loss of close friends, and of the horrors of battle grow stronger and stronger. The orders of the day buzz angrily inside the minds of the others.

“If a man was running, shoot him; if a woman with a rifle was running, shoot her. They’re all VC {Viet Cong}, now go and get them.” Go and get them.

Five hundred Vietnamese were killed that day — civilians in the town of My Lai, women and children. Viet Cong, passive supporters, neutrals, American supporters, wild animals, plants, and men’s souls. Everything died that day.

 

Creating good from bad

Why would I speak about a terrible mishap of the military as an optimistic event? Well, first, this story has a lot of personal significance to me. I wanted to tell the full story, unabridged, the way it should be told.

But most importantly, I wanted to show how veterans could salvage some good from such a catastrophe.

Yes, the My Lai Massacre was the most terrible event that ever happened in the soldiers’ entire lives. It was the biggest mistake they could ever make. However, they did not let that event define them as evil people.

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Click below to find out more about the VFW essay competition:

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I wanted to tell the My Lai story as a story of forgiveness, of rebuilding. Everyone makes a defining mistake in their life.

But I think the way that the veterans got back up and tried to reverse their mistake with all their heart — that’s what really defines their character. That’s what being a veteran seems to mean to me.

After the My Lai incident, veterans started going on pilgrimages to Vietnam to try and atone for their sins.

 

Humanitarian efforts

Many motivated vets have championed a humanitarian effort in My Lai. Loans have been given to the impoverished. Schools have been built. “Compassion houses” have been erected.

Thirty years afterwards, a special ceremony was held in which veterans came back and built a park for peace. Forty-five years later, another took place to once again honor the dead.

Our soldier decided that his legacy would not be the blood of innocents on his hands. And so, as a veteran, he made it his civic duty to educate the public, to give advice and guide the new generation to the path of justice.

He let 500 die, but he would save a thousand more. He absorbed the lessons of the war — perseverance, determination, self-control and an undying commitment to what’s right — many of which he had to learn the hardest way.

And he decided he would pass on those lessons so that others would never make the same terrible mistakes that he had.

 

Wisdom

Veterans are not the people who never make any mistakes, but rather people who have countless wisdom from years of experience. That’s what makes them truly unique.

We need veterans to pass on lessons that can only be learned from a hard life of true grit and sacrifice.

The most important thing that I have gained from the veterans I have interacted with is knowledge. Not book knowledge, but valuable life lessons spoken by men and women who have learned the hard way that only veterans do.

Our soldier had served his country. The nation’s history and future were important to him. And he was important to them.

 

Keyur Shah is a junior at Shelton High School. He wrote and presented this speech as part of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post competition in Newtown, and won second place.

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