In 1965 the United States started sending mostly young men to a little sliver of a country nobody had ever heard of a decade earlier, to fight an enemy everybody had heard of by then: communism. (Good Mornin'.... backyard bomb shelters.) In addition to allocating American blood, there were other pesky matters to attend to in the Oval Office.
It's an ugly word but somebody has to do it: paperwork.
Specifically, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed two executive orders: One, at the request of the Internal Revenue Service, established an official combat and tax exempt zone for the war: the countries of North and South Vietnam (easy...) and about one hundred miles of ocean alongside them to accommodate those Navy ships they don't like to talk about anymore. Laos and Cambodia were added to the zone some 30 years later... shhh, don't tell anyone. Anywho, this would allow the IRS perimeters for whose pay is taxed and whose isn't. Even today there are tax-free war zones. Just ask a servicemember in Iraq. (Yup, there ARE servicemen and women in Iraq right now--shhh... don't tell anyone.)
Back to my story... The other executive order was the establishment of the yellow, red, green, stripy and shiny bronze Vietnam Service Medal. (Ever see the license plate of the Vietnam veteran? Yes? That's it!) Here's the official literature on this medal:
The Vietnam Service Medal is awarded to any service member who served on temporary duty for more than 30 consecutive days, or 60 non-consecutive days, attached to or regularly serving for one, or more, days with an organization participating in or directly supporting ground (military) operations or attached to or regularly serving for one, or more, days aboard a naval vessel directly supporting military operations in the Republic of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos within the defined combat zone (DoD 1348 C18.104.22.168.5. revised September 1996) between the dates of 15 November 1961 and 28 March 1973, and from 29 April 1975 to 30 April 1975. For the United States Navy, vessels operating in Vietnamese waters qualify for the Vietnam Service Medal provided that the naval vessel was engaged in direct support of Vietnam combat operations.
If you fell asleep just now I do hope you'll wake up and pay attention to that last sentence. It's important.
If you read my book American Boys you know that the one item keeping the 74 men killed on the USS Frank E. Evans from their rightful place in American History, specifically, their names on the Vietnam Wall, is this combat zone. Essentially, when they created the Vietnam Memorial they used this perimeter to decide who died in the war and who didn't. Period. End of story. Or not... They have since added names to the wall of people who died outside of the zone... shhh... don't tell anyone.
Yes, the Evans was outside of the combat zone when 74 American sailors were killed. End of story? Not quite. You see, under one of Johnson's executive orders they were not in the war but under another, they were. Yes, this is a political clusterfuck. Why? Because the ship was awarded a final Vietnam Service Medal dated 2 Jun 1969 - (blank). That's right. Blank. They are still earning their medal, as established by an executive order that called for the Department of Defense to establish criteria for this medal. How did they get this medal? Don't get me started on the Naval History and Heritage Command--read my book if your curious about the digestive cycle of the official naval records. My point is: they qualified for it. So did all the American ships in the vicinity of the terrible accident. To get that medal a ship has to be doing something related to the war effort.
In American Boys I make this clear: the Evans was doing more than antisubmarine maneuvers in the South China Sea that night. My book is well-researched and documented. One person who reviewed my book (negatively) called the lengthy end notes portion of the book "a bit much." Sorry pal, just doing my job. (Everybody else seems to like it.)
On that note, to date, I still haven't gotten straight answers from the Navy nor the Department of Defense. The Navy Casualty division--which OKs additions to the Vietnam Wall-- did mention in a letter earlier this year the lack of proof that the Evans was doing something related to the war. I would love to tell him that one would need a scuba suit or Miss Cleo the Psychic to figure that one out. Why? Because everybody who would know something is dead--died that terrible day or died since. This same Navy letter-writer told me that the medal is not criteria for inclusion on the Vietnam Wall. Well, that's like saying a hamburger isn't a hamburger unless it comes from McDonalds. (As an aside, the irony is I googled Mister Letter Writer--he owns a hamburger chain in Arkansas.) The Department of Defense also informed me that they do not add names to the Vietnam Wall of people who died in exercises. Absolutely not true was my reply, which included numerous examples. To date, no answer on that one. (I really think they hate me over there. Guys, someday I hope we can fix this mess, sit down for a beer... and a hamburger... from Five Guys.)
Perhaps the Department of Defense is waiting for this to go away. Thanks to a small but growing group of people slowly coming aboard the truth vessel from the muddied mess that is the country's own official story of the Vietnam War, it won't go away. Thanks to the survivors, it won't go away. Thanks to the families, it won't go away. Thanks to a few lawmakers working on this, it won't go away. (Wishing Congressman Adam Schiff luck this week as he presents a new and improved amendment...)
Today I am happy to report that things are moving in Washington. Hopefully we'll get there.