|Vietnam Veterans of America|
True or false: 58,279 American military personnel were killed in action in the Vietnam War.
If you said, true, you are not correct.
Yes, 58,279 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen did indeed tragically lose their lives in Vietnam during the war. However, that number is made up of two different components: KIAs and other “Fatal Casualties,” to use the term employed by the Department of Defense. The actual number of Vietnam War KIAs—service members who were killed in action, including those who subsequently died of their combat wounds—is 47,434.
Which means that nearly 11,000 others who died in Vietnam during the war and whose names are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., perished from “non-action” causes. That includes suicides, murders, vehicle accidents, drownings, heart attacks, snake bites, and other animal attacks. There is at least one case of a serviceman who shot and killed a buddy, then turned his weapon on himself. Both names are on The Wall.
The official non-action categories and figures, complied by the National Archives based on U.S. military codes used during the war, are as follows:
In sum, the 58,279 names on The Wall “can’t be classified as KIAs—that is, they can’t be classified that they were killed,” said Tim Tetz, the Outreach Director at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The 58,000-plus number represents, he said, “all American service members who died in the Vietnam War Zone.”
Adding to the complicated Vietnam War casualty-classification situation is the fact that the definition of the Vietnam War Zone itself—as well as the date of the start of the war and the criteria for including deceased service members in the KIA category—have all changed since the war ended in 1975.
When The Wall was unveiled publicly in November 1982, it contained 57,939 names. That included some 1,300 designated as either missing or prisoners of war.
Not long after President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation authorizing two acres on the National Mall for the memorial on May 20, 1980, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund—the nonprofit that built The Wall and maintains it to this day—began working with the Pentagon to determine the names of every American who perished in Vietnam so they could be memorialized on the black granite Wall.
It was a sure bet that despite painstaking searches of official military records, the names of some who died in Vietnam inadvertently would be left off the memorial.
In the intervening 28 years, 281 names have been added to The Wall. Some simply fell through the cracks (so to speak) and when discovered were inscribed on the memorial. But the overwhelming majority were added because of what Tim Tetz characterized as “an evolution in our definition of what a Vietnam veteran is. It’s now much more inclusive than it was in 1982. The original founding intent was to list the names of all those who died in Vietnam. That was the ideal. The definition of that soon became a challenge.”
When The Wall was dedicated the closest thing to an official start of the war was August 5, 1964, the date of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. That engagement led six days later to the congressional resolution giving the Commander-in-Chief the authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Vietnam. American military advisers, however, had been on the ground in Vietnam since September 1945 and more than a few were wounded and killed following the end of the First Indochina War in 1954.
Also complicating the situation: The July 1, 1980, congressional resolution authorizing VVMF to build The Wall contained no language setting the war’s beginning or ending dates. Nor did the Pentagon recognize the war’s official start or end. When VVMF began working with DOD to collect the names of those who died in Vietnam, the Pentagon “didn’t specify” the war’s beginning or ending dates, Tetz said, and until early this year DOD and the VA were “still arguing about” the beginning date.
The Veterans Health Care and Benefit Act of 2020, which was signed into law on January 5, 2021, changed the VA’s definition of the start of the war from February 28, 1961, to November 1, 1955, which now conforms with DOD’s date. Although both departments recognize the same end date, May 7, 1975, the Pentagon agreed to add to The Wall the names of the 15 service members killed during the May 15, 1975, U.S.S. Mayaguez rescue mission off the coast of Cambodia. They are the last names in the chronological order of the memorial.
When The Wall was dedicated in 1982, the earliest casualties memorialized were Army Maj. Dale Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand, who both died on July 9, 1959, in an ambush in Long Binh. In 1983 the names of USAF Tech Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., who was shot and killed in Saigon on June 8, 1956, and Army Special Forces Capt. Harry G. Cramer, who was killed near Nha Trang on October 21, 1957, during an ARVN Special Forces training mission, were added to the memorial.
In addition to expanding the beginning date of the war, DOD changed the casualty criteria in two other ways. First, the Pentagon decided to include those who died, as a Pentagon Policies and Procedures document puts it, after 1975: “as a result of wounds (combat or hostile related) sustained in the combat zones.”
Second, names would be added to The Wall of service members who died “while participating in, or providing direct support to, a combat mission immediately en route to, or returning from a target within the defined combat zone.”
In that definitive casualty criteria document the DoD also saw fit to reiterate that to be on The Wall there would be “no requirement that the service member was killed in action or that the cause of death was combat related.”
On Veterans Day 1983, 68 new names (including Fitzgibbon’s and Cramer’s) were added to The Wall. Most had been inadvertently left off, and were discovered when family members or Vietnam War buddies contacted the government to petition for their inclusion.
On Memorial Day 1986, 108 names were added, 13 of whom had perished outside the combat zone in the mid and late 1970s and early 1980s of wounds they had received in the war. “These are people who came home very severely injured or very sick and died and somehow within the process their paperwork got lost,” Tetz said.
Ninety-five of the names added in the 1986 group perished in wartime air crashes that took place outside the combat zone. “These people were leaving on combat missions from outside the war zone for purposes of combat” when they were killed, then VVMF President Jan Scruggs explained at the time. They’re “mostly U.S. Air Force personnel who died in crashes or shoot downs,” Tetz added.
Among those added to The Wall on Veterans Day 1987 was Army Maj. Samuel Richard Bird, a 1st Cavalry Division company commander. On his 27th birthday, January 27, 1967, Sam Bird stepped off a helicopter and was shot in the knee, ankle, and head by a VC sniper. Miraculously, he did not die. But Bird made only a partial recovery, regaining the use of just one arm.
He was able to return to his home in Kansas, was married in 1972, and died in Wichita on October 18, 1984. His enshrinement on The Wall three years later made national headlines when it was discovered that, as a member of the Old Guard (the 3rd Infantry Unit at Fort Myer), he had commanded the military honor guard at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963.
Names have been added regularly into the 21st century. In 2011, for example, five names were etched into The Wall. They included three men who were hit in Vietnam and later died of their wounds: Army Spec. Charles Robert Vest, who was severely wounded in Vietnam on July 26, 1967, remained in a coma for seven years and died in 1974; Army Sgt. Henry L. Aderholt, a helicopter door gunner wounded in action on February 14, 1970, who died of those wounds nearly three years later; and Army Spec. Charles Sabatier, whose spine was severed by a bullet on February 3, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, and who died in 2009.
Name additions have continued to this day. “In 2017,” Tetz said, “we added a young man who came home in 1968 and died within months. He had cancer while he was in Vietnam, was sick when he came home, and then died. His mother [later] approached her congressman about adding him to The Wall, and DOD” ultimately agreed.
A war zone, of course, is an extremely hazardous place. None of the service members who died in Vietnam and its environs from 1955-75—no matter what the cause of their deaths—would not have perished there (or later from their wounds) if there had been no American war in Vietnam. They are all Vietnam War casualties.
The wide variety of the causes of death and where and when Americans died as a result of their service in the Vietnam War, Tim Tetz observed, “paints a picture of the variety of colors behind the stories that are laid out in the black and gray that is The Wall.”
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