A little more than 50 years ago, the deadliest battles raged across South Vietnam in surprise coordinated attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts.
For the next two months, the attacks carried out by both the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong resulted in mass casualties, but the number of deaths on both sides eroded support in the United States for the Vietnam War that resulted in a turning point of American opinion.
The events leading up to and during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, isn’t lost on Vietnam War veteran Richard “Rick” Arnold of Carson City.
“During Tet in 1968, we lost about 16,000 people out of 58,000 (servicemen and women) who died in Vietnam,” said Arnold, former president of Vietnam Veterans Association chapter 388 in Carson City.
The inaugural National Vietnam War Veterans Day on Thursday will be recognized on Saturday morning with a wreath-laying ceremony at Winnemucca and later that day at 5 p.m. at Carson City’s Mills Park. A national remembrance day for Vietnam veterans began in the spring 2007 to honor the men and women who served in one of the longest conflicts in United States history.
An act of Congress, though, to honor Vietnam veterans with a day of recognition was signed into law by President Donald Trump, and March 29 is now designated as National Vietnam War Veterans Day by the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017.
Speeches, the reading of Nevadans’ names who died during the war and a wreath-laying ceremony will be conducted by both VVA chapters 388 and 989 of Reno at the Nevada Vietnam War Memorial. The annual event recognizes more than 8 million men and women who served during the Vietnam era and in Nevada, the 151 servicemen and women who died as a result of the war. Carson City mayor and Vietnam veteran Bob Crowell will deliver the keynote address. He served in the U.S. Navy and retired from military service as a captain.
The official National Day set aside was Thursday, when, in 1973, combat and combat support units withdrew from South Vietnam. The Vietnam War lasted almost two decades and impacted a half-million U.S. men and women who served in the armed forces.
The Tet Offensive ultimately led to the announcement from President Lyndon B. Johnson he wouldn’t seek his party’s nomination for re-election. It also signaled the beginning to reduce the number of troops in the country and to accelerate peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam, thus resulting in the signing of the Paris Peace Accord in January 1973.
Arnold spent three tours in Vietnam, the first one coming after he completed air assault training in the mid-1960s. Once he finished his third tour, he didn’t know if he would return to the country. He did but only as a civilian and years removed from the military.
“I managed to go back twice but didn’t go on a tour,” he said, explaining he had contacts that set up the trip. “We rented a van and drove to all the sites.”
The second time Arnold traveled to Vietnam was a result of a local Rotary Club. Arnold’s daughter accompanied him to Vietnam.
“Seeing the country was great healing for me,” he said. “The last time, we went to Da Nang, which is now a big city south of China Beach. But we also went out in the rural area, which hasn’t changed too much.”
Yet, Arnold and his daughter discovered the Russians had installed electricity throughout the sparsely-populated countryside.
Since the end of the Vietnam War where the general population either ignored or rebuked veterans, the nation’s residents have now accepted the role of the thousands of men and women who served in a country 13,000 miles from the West Coast. For Arnold, traveling to the country and visiting a display called “Take Me Home Huey” last year in Carson City have aided in the healing. In September after PBS aired a series on the Vietnam War, veterans such as Tom Spencer, president of VVA 388, said he hoped the Vietnam series on PBS and the Huey project will help bring some closure to veterans from that era.
Other Vietnam veterans from western Nevada have taken Honor Flight Nevada trips to the nation’s capital to see and reflect on memorials — such as the Vietnam Wall — dedicated to the country’s wars and military personnel.
Veterans and their guests will also pay their respects to seven Carson City residents who died as a result of Vietnam: Sgt. Daniel L. Ackerman, Petty Officer 3 Michael A. Bodamer, Cpl. David. L. Collins, Spec. 4 Danny L. Smothers, Lance Cpl. Keith D. Taylor, Cmdr. Frederick H. Whittemore and Cpl. James R. Willis. Those from Fallon include Spec. 4 Mahlon R. Arnett, Pfc. Michael D. Blea, Sgt. 1st Class Billy D. Hill, Spec. 4 Willard V. Johnson, Spec. 4 Fredrick E. Larsen, Capt. Eddie Molino, Jr., Spec. 4 Ronald R. Rodrigues and Spec. 5 William R. Rogne.
Other area veterans include Cpl. Dale Eugene Hutchins, Douglas County, and Sgt. Danny Gerald Studdard, Virginia City.
Representatives from both the Carson City and Reno VVA chapters will read the veterans’ names.