Now it’s personal. Vietnam, I mean. The Americans who were there.
First, they’re older than I expected. That was jarring. I was meeting them in my work on a six-city premiere tour for "Faith of our Fathers,” a story of two sons of Vietnam soldiers getting it right about their dads, and with each other. And with God. In the film I’m Sgt. Mansfield, a tough guy who knew both fathers overseas. Now he’s his men’s living link to their sons.
In the premieres we tried to also get a few things right. A reverse red carpet for instance, meaning U.S. vets walked the carpet, paused for the cameras, and we cheered them on.
I remember thinking years ago that in my lifetime the last vets from World War II, what some called “the good war,” would die. Now they leave us at the rate of nearly 500 a day. Of the 16 million who served, about 850,000 are left. Now it’s Vietnam that threatens to fade before we say thank you. Before we say we got it wrong letting culture and politics block our view of their sacrifice. Their honor.
We showed "Faith of Our Fathers" to packed houses, and at the end of each screening, I said to audiences full of veterans, "No amount of work I’ve done in my life ever will be as important as what you have done in service for our country."
The movie tour stung at times. The vets were choked up. I was choked up.
One quick story: Bobby Downes, one of the producers of "Faith of our Fathers" took the hands of a Vietnam Vet. Bobby looked the man in the eye and said, “Thank you for answering freedom's call. You said yes and put your life on the line. Your sacrifices sealed my freedoms. And one more thing: welcome home."
The vet teared up.He said, "No one’s said that to me."
People around us had tears. There were so many other moments. The next vet. And the next. And the next.
Now these Americans are leaving us as they die of old age and complications. We’ve got to let them know we’re grateful. In six cities I caught on to a certain look to the Vietnam survivors—not like the WWII vets who attended. You gotta wonder if that look, that awkwardness, has something to do with the lack of gratitude they ran into back in the U.S.
Imagine a year or more of foreign war and coming home to be despised.
We showed "Faith of Our Fathers" to packed houses, and at the end of each filming, I said to audiences full of veterans, "No amount of work I’ve done in my life ever will be as important as what you have done in service for our country."
On the final night in Monroe, Louisiana, Si Robertson—“Duck Dynasty’s” Uncle Si—was presented with a 50th Anniversary flag from the Department of Defense, marking the start of the Vietnam War. Si served four tours in Vietnam and 25 years in the army. He took a microphone and said, "I've watched this movie twice now and tonight it hit me deeper and meant much more to me—the sacrifices each of you in this room made. All gave some. Some gave all."
In Washington, D.C., The Vietnam War Memorial bears 58,000 individual names. That’s as it should be. It wasn’t numbers who died. It was soldiers—individual Americans who traded civilian clothes for fatigues, comfort for struggle. This is hard to write.
“Faith of our Fathers” is one story, one overdue salute. For me it was a chance of a lifetime to stand for the soldiers who stood for my country. If this tour, and these vets, have taught me anything, it’s that the USA is only as strong as it treats its veterans.
Stephen Baldwin, veteran actor and currently cohost of “Baldwin McCullough LIVE,” most recently played Sgt. Mansfield in “Faith of Our Fathers,” still in theaters.