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Dave Lange at Ben Luc Naval Base on the Vam Ko Dong River, 1969.

Numerical Disrespect

When I returned to Kent State University in early 1972, nearly four years after losing my student draft deferment and two years after coming back to The World, publication of the Pentagon Papers was fresh on the minds of the American people. Thanks to whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and freedom of the press, I learned that my service in Vietnam and the deaths of 55,000 Americans (and still counting) in that godforsaken war were a result of lies from the Oval Office.

That was a contributing factor in my decision to become a journalist.

The events of May 4, 1970, when four Kent State students were killed by Ohio National Guard weekend warriors, brought national notoriety to the university. Contrary to the anti-war sentiment associated with that fateful date, my fellow students at Kent, including my future wife, welcomed me home with open arms, not just with words.

But after earning my journalism degree, I can’t say the same for dozens of editors of major newspapers who rejected my resume, which included many dean’s listings and, perhaps detrimentally, my status as a Vietnam veteran. So I ended up spending a rewarding 40-year career with smaller publications.

As editor of the daily Geauga Times Leader in a semirural county just east of Cleveland, I learned in 1984 that the falsehoods emanating from Washington about Vietnam and its war veterans were persistent.

That year’s Veterans Day “News Feature” from the Veterans Administration drove that message home. In reading the VA’s tribute to the thousands of Americans who served and died in wars from the Revolution to Vietnam, I was struck by its total of 47,000 deaths in our war, notably in comparison to 55,000 who died worldwide during the Korean War. Total American deaths in the Korean War theater were far fewer, 36,574.

I knew at the time that the official count of U.S. military deaths in Vietnam already had exceeded 57,000, 10,000 more than acknowledged by the VA. As reported in the May/June issue of The VVA Veteran, the official Vietnam War count now is 58,279.

After concluding that the VA had included 20,000 non-battle deaths for Korea, 115,000 for World War II, and 63,000 for World War I, but not a single one in Vietnam, I wrote to Harry Walters, then-administrator of the VA, to ask why.

“I cannot believe that this is a simple oversight,” I told him. “I believe it was a deliberate effort to play down the Vietnam War.”

The VA responded that “no malice was intended toward Vietnam veterans” and that the “intent was to show the relatively high rate of combat deaths experienced in Vietnam.”


Oddly, while non-combat deaths were excluded from the VA’s Vietnam count, there was no distinction between combat and non-combat deaths listed for the other wars. Interestingly, the 63,114 non-theater World War I deaths, including some 55,000 from the Spanish flu and pneumonia, exceeded the 53,402 battle deaths.

Years later I thought that the VA, at least, had moved past downplaying Vietnam War deaths. That was until 2010, when a municipal court judge in Carroll County, Ohio, citing the VA in a talk to a local veterans group, said that combat experience in Iraq was three times the rate that it was in Vietnam.

In actuality, during 2007, the deadliest year in Iraq, 965 Americans lost their lives there, 5.7 per 1,000 troops in country. During 1968, the deadliest year in Vietnam, 16,592 Americans lost their lives there, 31 per 1,000 troops in country—more than five times the 2007 rate in Iraq. During my year in Vietnam (1969) 11,616 of my brothers were killed, 24.4 per 1,000 troops in country, more than four times the 2007 rate in Iraq.

Nothing exemplifies combat experience more explicitly than death rates in the war theater.

More recently in Carroll County, a Memorial Day speaker conceded that more Americans died in the Vietnam War than in the Korean War. But he also claimed that Korea was much worse, because its 36,574 American deaths occurred in just three years, compared to the two decades of our involvement in Vietnam. Never mind that more than 40,000 Americans perished in Vietnam during the war’s deadliest three years, 1967-69.

Like my fellow Vietnam veterans, I honor and respect the heroism of Americans who fought and died in other wars. But I wonder why the sacrifices that we made in Vietnam are belittled by others.

VVA life member and retired newspaper editor Dave Lange was named best columnist in Ohio in 2000 and 2011. He was inducted in the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame in 2020. He is the author of a memoir, Virginity Lost in Vietnam.




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