My wars were Iraq and Afghanistan, preceded by earlier combat stints in Grenada and Lebanon. But it's not surprising that this week I caught myself walking back and forth between the Vietnam and POW/MIA monuments at the Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park. Vietnam veterans inspired me to become a Marine.
Their war was a shadowy one where the enemy often was unseen. Combat was frequently defined by rear area attacks, booby traps, the absence of front lines, civilians in the mix, and fighting on ground they previously fought over. Actually, it is similar to what our military faces today with ISIS, al-Qaida and other terrorist networks.
Vietnam shaped presidential decisionmaking for a generation. Looking ahead, our country will be shaped for at least a generation by the world views and decisions of our next president. Americans have rightly moved beyond viewing military service as a litmus test of presidential worthiness. What remains relevant, though, is a candidate's fitness to be commander in chief and his or her views toward those who serve or have served in our military. A candidate's personality and views are prospective windows into the future.
One of the two main candidates has been shaped by years of public service trying to counter shadowy enemies who mean America and our friends harm; the other is defined by hurtful words and behavior similar to what some Americans displayed to returning Vietnam veterans long ago. At age 51, the latter candidate publicly stated that his fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases was "scary, like Vietnam." It was, he said, "my personal Vietnam" and it made him "feel like a great and brave soldier." Later, at age 69, he said of former POW John McCain, "He was a war hero because he was captured." And then on POWs in general: "I like people who weren't captured."
This last statement weighed on me as I stood in front of the POW/MIA Memorial this week. The monument depicts a lone, emaciated American soldier behind barbed wire. He is barefoot and on one knee with his arms outstretched; his ribs are showing and his clothes are rags. He is one of our own. He had bad days and worse days but he never lost faith. He knew his country was the greatest on Earth, even with its many flaws.
Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day when we honor the thousands of Americans who have been captured while serving in our armed forces. On this day, as well as in April on National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, it is customary for presidents to issue a special proclamation. Many Vietnam veterans cannot forgive actress Jane Fonda for posing in a propaganda photo on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun in 1972. Yet, many of these same veterans reflexively support a presidential candidate who denigrated their own military service and disparaged former prisoners of war.
Even after my 30-year Marine Corps career, I still stand in awe of Vietnam veterans. I was part of their legacy, but their legacy is still evolving. In fact, this November's election is very much about their legacy.
More than half of Florida's 1.6 million veterans are 65 or older — and the bulk of them are Vietnam-era veterans.
My question to them is: Whom will you entrust with the solemn responsibility to order your grandchildren and great-grandchildren into America's future battles?
James B. Seaton III is a retired Marine Corps colonel and former Camp Pendleton base commander in California. He lives in Tampa.