On March 29, 1973, Army Master Sgt. Max Bielke boarded a C-130 in Saigon and headed home. Like so many other Vietnam vets, Bielke’s service did not end there. He continued to work as a civilian employee with the Retirement Services Division until Sept. 11, 2001. That day, he lost his life during a meeting, when terrorists slammed into the nation’s military headquarters. Bielke saw the end of what was the longest war in American history and the beginning of what would become an even longer one.
The Vietnam War’s place in our national story is remembered March 29, a day when most schools and workplaces will stay open, and observances are typically kept among those of my wartime generation. We, of that generation, and The American Legion know the significance of National Vietnam War Veterans Day, which has been observed since 2017, when President Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the day the last U.S. combat troops departed from Vietnam, closing the curtain on a long and complicated time in world history.
The first known American fatality from the Vietnam War was Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, who made the ultimate sacrifice on June 8, 1956. On Sept. 7, 1965, his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, would make the same sacrifice. They both rest eternally at Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, Mass. The names of more than 58,000 Americans would eventually be etched for eternity on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.
Even after Saigon fell, we continued – and still continue – to lose more of our brothers and sisters. Agent Orange-related illnesses, PTSD and other wounds of war take their toll more and more as the years pass. I am proud to say that more than 1 million Vietnam veterans belong to The American Legion, making them the largest segment of our membership. We honor their service. We advocate on behalf of their needs. We defend their legacy.
While historians continue to debate and second-guess the strategies and decisions of America’s political leaders during the Vietnam War, the noble service of the men and women who served there should not be forgotten.
It is still not too late to heal old wounds. The next time you see a Vietnam veteran, say, “Thank you for your service.” And if you are one, welcome home! To hundreds of thousands of others, like Max Bielke, we respect and remember you, though we cannot be together in person just now.
Vincent J. “Jim” Troiola
The American Legion