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Nancy Smith

For War Veterans, Labels Matter

June 12, 2014 - 6:00pm

The governor putting his signature on a bill Thursday that changes how the state references the Korean and Vietnam wars completed a stroke of symbolic poetry -- not just for me, but for all Floridians who lost family and friends or fought in either of those wars.

It's no small thing. House Bill 559 isn't just about redesigning veterans' license plates. It's about the truth. It's about how these wars will be reflected in the minds of young people who read what we wrote about them.

State statutes are pocked with offensive references to the Korean War as a "conflict" and to Vietnam -- not even afforded the lowly "conflict" designation, but referred to as an "era" -- as if our GIs never bothered to show up for the fighting.

Senate sponsor Charlie Dean, R-Ocala, and House sponsor Larry Metz, R-Groveland, recognized this. They listened to veterans -- some 1.5 million of them in Florida. As Gov. Rick Scott said during Thursday's bill signing, "(Florida has) the third largest population of veterans in the nation ... This legislation is one more way we thank our veterans for their service and sacrifice."

More than 36,500 American servicemen died in Korea; 7,900 are still missing in action. But Korea isn't numbers for me. I was a little kid when my mother's cousin Tommy was killed in a trench on some cold, unnamed Korean hillside in 1953. I still remember his face, barely more than a boy himself the last time I saw him. He came to the house the night before he left for the war and presented me with his baseball card collection. "Take care of Ted Williams for me," I remember him saying.

In Vietnam, the numbers are even more dramatic. But this war was even more painful for me than the Korean War. It was my war, the war of my generation. I lost friends from high school and college, even two close colleagues, and people I'd just met. I had walked with some of them, eaten with some of them, told their stories.

All you have to do is look at the 58,272 names carved on the long, granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Those men and women weren't living in any "era." The "Roaring Twenties" was an era; the "Sixties" was an era. I can tell you because this is something I know about -- our brave GIs in Southeast Asia were serving their country, fighting in a war and living not in any era defined by geography. They were living in hell.

It always struck me that the veterans of these wars -- no less heroes in battle, no less courageous and patriotic than those we refer to as "the Greatest Generation" -- were victims of decisions beyond their control -- in the White House, in the Pentagon, on the battlefield, but somewhere far above their rank.

In Korea, soldiers were told they were fighting to stop the march of communism and preserve freedom, and that was good enough for them. They fought courageously, in the most dire conditions, and held.

The Korean War lived up to its nickname -- "the Forgotten War." It was forgotten, frankly, because no one knew how to remember it. Few Americans understood it even while it was happening. Most important of all, unlike World War II, it was a war without clear definition -- a war we couldn't win. Thank God returning vets had each other.

The Vietnam War, on the other hand, wasn't a war we couldn't win, it was a war we couldn't bring ourselves towin, certainly through no fault of the men and women who fought it. It was a culmination of years of wishy-washy decisions in Washington of whether to go in with bombs or soft-pedal our presence until we could get out without losing face. The Vietnam War was in everybody's living room night after night on the 6 O'clock News. It was a public relations nightmare. And for the soldiers lucky enough to get back, just another war they had to fight.

Too many Vietnam vets felt unwanted, unrewarded and, quite honestly, were never able to recover fully from the twin trauma of the war and the homecoming.

I know this bill doesn't mean we're going to have a team of clerks going through every state record to purge it of "Korean Conflict" and "Vietnam Era." The bill certainly will alter forever wording in Florida statutes. It was largely a gesture, important to veterans and people like me who don't think of it as so long ago. The point is, Florida's further euphemistic, politically correct slant to important events at least in this area of history has been nipped in the bud. We're finally calling a spade a spade.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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