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The war's true beginning

When a Senate committee voted this week to change the start date of the Vietnam War, it honored thousands of veterans whose wartime service has for too long gone unrecognized.

Congress has always considered Aug. 5, 1964, the official start of the Vietnam War. It was the day North Vietnamese gunboats attacked two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Veterans groups have correctly argued that the date is arbitrary and inaccurate, since by 1964, American military advisers had been assisting the South Vietnamese for several years.

In fact, more than 16,000 Americans served in Vietnam between 1961 and 1964. On Feb. 28, 1961, U.S. advisers began accompanying South Vietnamese troops on operations. That is the new date the committee selected to mark the start of the war. It is the same year the first American soldier died in combat against the Viet Cong.

In 1964, the war was already in full swing. By refusing to acknowledge this, Congress has not only withheld from servicemen the credit they are due, it has denied some needed disability benefits. The 1964 start date has shortchanged about 280 Vietnam veterans _ all of whom are indigent _ out of benefits for service-related illnesses and non-military disabilities. That is irresponsible and insulting. These soldiers served with the same level of commitment as those who arrived later in the war. They deserve respect _ and compensation _ for their efforts.

The measure was approved by the Senate committee on Wednesday and is expected to be passed by the full Senate in September. The trouble will be getting it through the House of Representatives, where it has died four times before. House members have argued that allowing the Vietnam measure to pass would be an invitation to rewrite the history of other wars. That is nonsense.

The Senate measure is not about revising history as much as it is about correcting mistakes and making amends for duplicity. Despite the government's decades of denials, there are scores of soldiers who are living proof that Vietnam began long before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Acknowledging that service is the least Congress can do.