Every time Ken Buckles meets a Vietnam veteran, he asks if he can shake their hand and talk to them for a few minutes. At the end, he says, “I’m so sorry for how you were treated when you came back home.”
They thank him, often with tears with their eyes.
The Vietnam War claimed the lives of more than 58,000 American service members and wounded over 150,000. Sadly, for the men who served in Vietnam and survived unspeakable horrors, coming home offered its own kind of trauma.
They were screamed at, insulted, abused, even spit on. For a generation that was angry and disillusioned about their country’s role in a deeply unpopular war, and who did not have ready access to their political leaders, returning service members received the brunt of their ire.
Buckles is the founder and director of Remembering America’s Heroes, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve veterans’ stories and share them with younger generations — particularly high school students. He says that in his 23 years of doing this work, connecting with Vietnam vets has always been his greatest challenge.
The idea of an apology to Vietnam veterans stems from a conversation he had with a Vietnam vet from New Zealand. Despite being the executive director of an organization serving veterans, as well as a student of America’s military history, he was surprised to learn that both New Zealand and Australia had sent troops to Vietnam in support of their U.S. ally.
“We had you Yanks’ backs,” the Kiwi said.
Buckles was just as stunned to learn that Aussie and New Zealand troops received the same harsh treatment and abuse that so many U.S. service members were subjected to upon returning home.
“Oh, hell yes,” Buckles recalled the man saying. “It happened to us and the Aussies too.”
He paused for a moment, then went on: “But in 2008, New Zealand had a National Vietnam Veterans Apology Day. It was so emotional and healing.”
Buckles thinks it’s high time his country did the same. And he believes his town of Canby, which has a Vietnam Memorial prominently located along Highway 99E and a long history of supporting veterans and the military, is a great place to start.
He’s asking folks who are interested in joining the movement to wear a special shirt on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. They boast a simple message, “Dear Vietnam Veterans: I’m So Sorry for the Way You Were Treated when You Came Home!”, along with a depiction of the Vietnam service ribbon.
You can get yours from the Remembering America’s Heroes website for a $20 donation (shipping included). The shirts are also available to Canby businesses for $10 apiece, so they can buy them in bulk for their employees to wear on Veterans Day.
Buckles said the response from the Canby community has been amazing, with support from Mayor Brian Hodson, the Canby Cougar football team and coaches, Canby Police Department and Canby Fire District as well as many local businesses, including Cutsforth’s Market, Backstop Bar & Grill, Wild Hare Saloon, Gwynn’s Coffeehouse, NW Furniture Outlet, T-Line Design, Advantage Mortgage, Canby Crossfit, Millar’s Point S Tire and Auto, and Baker’s Prairie Bakery.
For our more in-depth interview with Ken and Malinda Buckles, tune in to the Sept. 16 episode of the Canby Now Podcast.