’Nam.

Those three letters carry a lot of weight for thousands of veterans in the Killeen-Fort Hood area.

It was a war unlike any other the United States had seen. Fought in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, the infusion of helicopters redefined the battlefield, allowing infantry to get to and from the fighting in short order.

“The average U.S. infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year, thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. In comparison, the average infantry in the South Pacific during World War II saw only 40 days of combat in four years,” according to statistics from the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration, a Defense Department program tasked with commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war.

Facing a tough enemy comprised of line units from the North Vietnamese army and guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong, more than 58,000 American service-members died fighting the war. Driven by politics, the war became increasingly unpopular back home, drawing large and sometimes violent protests.

“The war itself was a mistake,” said retired Lt. Gen. Paul “Butch” Funk, a former Fort and III Corps commander, who lives in Coryell County.

Vietnam was hot, miserable, bloody and perhaps unwinnable. But that didn’t deter American troops — some there willingly, some not — from fighting hard. Perhaps not for their country, but certainly for the buddy next to them.

“Their bravery was unquestioned,” said Funk, who commanded 1st Cavalry troops in Vietnam in 1969 and ’70.

Veterans of Vietnam

Today, thousands of the Vietnam-era veterans live near Fort Hood in Bell and Coryell counties.

According to statistics from Veterans Affairs, about 541,000 Vietnam-era veterans live in the Lone Star State, representing more than a third of the 1.5 million veterans who call Texas home.

Close to 50,000 veterans live in Bell County alone, and another 12,000 live in Coryell County. While the VA couldn’t confirm exactly how many of those are Vietnam veterans, the number is believed to be between 10,000 and 20,000.

According to a 2012 report from the Texas Workforce Investment Council, Bell County had nearly 20,000 veterans between the ages of 45 and 84, and Coryell County had about 6,000 veterans in that age group.

As World War II and Korean War veterans get older, and fewer, an increasing number of Vietnam vets are beginning to take their places in retirement communities, VA nursing homes and elsewhere.

50th commemoration

In cooperation with veterans’ organizations, individuals and others, the federal government is remembering the Vietnam War with an official 50th anniversary commemoration period in line with the length of the war: From 1962, when the U.S. created the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, to 1975, when the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops, marking an end to the war.

The federal commemoration period, approved by Congress in 2008, began on Memorial Day in 2012 and will last through Nov. 11, 2025.

President Barack Obama signed a proclamation on the commemoration period, calling it a “13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”

The president later said: “Let us remember that it is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor.”

The U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration set up a three-year time period, from 2015-2017, for organizations or individuals to become official commemoration partners.

According to the commemoration’s website, partners “must commit to conduct at least two events each year during the period of 2015-2017 that will recognize, thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families.”

Local efforts

The commemoration partner period has been a call to action for veterans organizations across the country, including the Killeen-Fort Hood area, where Pat Christ, a Harker Heights councilman and Vietnam veteran, and the Central Texas Area Veterans Advisory Committee are spearheading an effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Local events being planned to honor Vietnam veterans include the Fourth of July parade in Belton; the Veterans Day parade in Killeen; a free dinner for Vietnam vets at Fort Hood on the Saturday before Veterans Day; and, perhaps the biggest local effort of all, the establishment of a new memorial at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.

Salado sculptor and Vietnam veteran Troy Kelley agreed to build the memorial, which will likely be a statue memorializing Vietnam veterans from Central Texas, Christ said, adding the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America is helping with it.

Conceptual designs will be discussed at a June 18 meeting at Harker Heights City Hall, said Christ, adding the 6 p.m. meeting is open to the public and he encourages “businesses or anyone else who has ideas” to attend.

At Fort Hood this week, the annual “Cav Week” kicks off with an extra emphasis to remember Vietnam veterans.

Also part of the 50th anniversary is the Central Texas Area Veterans Advisory Committee’s effort to sell military-style coins to raise funds for events and programs that will commemorate the war. The coin sells for $10 and features an outline of North and South Vietnam, along with an image of the green, yellow and red Vietnam Service Ribbon, earned by troops who fought in the war. On the flip side, the emblems of the military branches surround an outline of Texas, and the words “All gave some, some gave all” are seen near the edge.

“We’ve had an awful lot of success with the coins,” Christ said. About 1,500 coins have been sold.

Contact Jacob Brooks jbrooks@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7468

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