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A Salute to Wisconsin Veterans

Fellows Forum

For nearly seventy years the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs has been serving our veterans in many ways. This department is very special to me and many others, and it is recognized as a model for other state agencies throughout the country. 

Two veterans of different wars sponsored the legislation that gave birth to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. They were joined by the members of the Wisconsin State Senate and the State Assembly in establishing this deserving tribute to our veterans. Senator Warren Knowles (World War II, US Navy) and my father, Senator Melvin Laird Sr. (World War I, Army Chaplin in the European Theater)—bound by service in two separate wars—began in the closing days of World War II the legislative preparations for creating this important department to provide critical assistance to all Wisconsin veterans.

The judgment of the Legislature was that a permanent Department of Veterans Affairs that provided long-term, low-interest loans and other counseling support would benefit veterans more than a one-time cash bonus favored by several other states. This assessment over time has certainly proven correct. 

My role in supporting the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs came after I was elected to fill my father’s unfinished term upon his death. The time of my first election to the Wisconsin State Senate, I was just recently home from serving in the Pacific aboard the Destroyer U.S.S. Maddox and still in service on terminal leave. I was elected at the age of 24. My military service certainly helped me in that first election in 1946 but I must admit it was my father’s wonderful reputation that was the determining factor. 

I was immediately assigned to the Senate Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs and I became chairman of the committee three years later in 1949. It was in this role that I joined Senator Art Lenroot of Superior, Wisconsin, in introducing the Laird-Lenroot Veterans Housing legislation. We had the full support of Senate Majority Leader Warren Knowles and many other members. This bill passed both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support. 

Now, there were only a few Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate at the time. My close and good friend, the late Gaylord Nelson, was their leader. Our friendship was well known. We “caucused” on many occasions after the adjournment of Senate sessions. On occasions, his wife Carrie Lee, a former Army nurse, would join us even though she got off duty sometimes very late from the University of Wisconsin Hospital. 

The Laird–Lenroot legislation, with its very low 2% interest second mortgage housing loans, garnered credibility and support for the nascent Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Department. As a fellow veteran, I will always take pride in serving the veterans of Wisconsin and my district during this crucial period in American history.

While the importance of the work done by the Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Department can’t be overstated, there is need for more work. At present there are valid criticisms that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are not being treated adequately or promptly by the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense. Their complaints and those from Vietnam veterans are being investigated by Congress. Whether it was our two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or other calls for military action, all our veterans deserve to be heard and supported and to receive our help and counsel. 

I tend to focus on Vietnam veterans mainly because we as a country failed to recognize their long, tough assignments. Too, I was actively involved in the struggle against poorly conceived war policies at that time and saw the problems first hand. 

The Vietnam War illustrated that it is far easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one and that the full, long-term costs are often badly underestimated. To go back in time for a moment, our entry into that war began hurriedly following the supposed North Vietnamese attack on the destroyers U.S.S. Maddox and Turner Joy on August 2, 1964.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, quickly passed by the Congress at the urging of President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, authorized us to engage in ground combat and other military operations in Southeast Asia. At the time, this authorization by Congress was assumed by the U.S. Attorney General to be adequate to conduct a war of this magnitude.

For the next almost five years, there would be no winning policy put forth, but, instead, an alarming escalation and commitment of U.S. military personnel along with ever increasing casualties and economic costs. During this period I served as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Committee. I questioned the Johnson Administration on the intelligence estimates as well as the rising costs of the war. There was never a withdrawal plan articulated to our committee, only upbeat reports on current operations.

In the eyes of the Washington press corps, I was always seen—because of my incessant questioning—to be an opponent of the Secretary and President’s policies on the war. But I always went out of my way to show respect for McNamara and Johnson individually, and limited my questions and criticisms to the war policies.

Suddenly, after the election of 1968, I found myself in a new position. President-elect Richard Nixon asked me to become Secretary of Defense in his incoming administration. Because of my background on the Defense Appropriation Committee and my service in the military, I asked for several conditions of non-interference from the White House to which the President-elect agreed. With this agreement, I felt it was my duty to do something to change our course in Vietnam. 

When I became Secretary of Defense, we had over 500,000 ground combat troops in Vietnam and one million Air Force and Naval Forces in close country support activities with no withdrawal plan in sight. The cost of the Vietnam War in economic terms, but, more importantly in terms of human suffering, was simply too high. One of my first actions was to turn down an old request to increase the troop ceiling in Vietnam by 100,000, a request that already had been approved by the joint chiefs but remained on the desk of the Secretary during the election transition. I changed our national policy in Vietnam from an Americanization of the war to a Vietnamization approach. Instead of regularly increasing the deployment of U.S. troops, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard and I announced our plan to train more South Vietnamese troops and to begin withdrawing our troops on a well-programmed and fair basis. We began decreasing the numbers at every opportunity as we turned the war over to the South Vietnamese.

Entering my new post, I found it inconceivable that American prisoners of war had been almost forgotten. No one was pressuring the North Vietnamese to abide by the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners. The Johnson Administration refused to publicly discuss the plight of POWs or even press the international community on the issue. I was warned by the State Department and during a visit by Ambassador Harriman not to push the question of POW treatment on the grounds it might upset the North Vietnamese and have a negative effect on the Paris Peace Accord meetings.

During the ensuing four years, we Vietnamized the war, increased public discussion of POWs, and instituted a new approach of participatory management of the entire Department of Defense. Previously there had been no withdrawal plan, no POW plan, and no real budgeting for the war. Up to that point, Defense had been making a series of separate requests and borrowing from within accounts—constantly reprogramming use of existing funds which merely weakened other areas of our national defense like NATO, the Guard, and Reserve forces.

When I left as Secretary of Defense in 1973 to move to the White House as Senior Counselor for Domestic Affairs, the Laird-Packard team’s changes were very evident: There was no U.S. military combat role in Vietnam, our POWs were home, the 34-year-old practice of drafting military personnel was over, and we had effectively put the All Volunteer Total Force in place.

Yet for all the work we did to respond to the needs of our returning soldiers, the Vietnam veteran may be the most unappreciated veteran in our military history. Some of them need as much help as our new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many need more.

Vietnam illustrates that when decisions of war are made, we must always remember to consider all the costs—not just the enormous costs of lives lost and appropriations spent during conflict but also the costs that begin after the fighting ends. Some of these costs, like retirement benefits, are easy to understand. Other costs, like ongoing physical and mental health concerns such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are harder to address. Some of these costs will last forever.

Yet, too often these costs are not fully understood by those demanding military action.

We must not allow the service of any of our veterans to be forgotten. Today veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are facing a critical time as they return to civilian life. We owe a responsibility to each and every one to assist them in assimilating back into society through medical assistance and help in securing employment, education, and housing. It is the least we as a nation can do for those that offer their lives to protect this country. 

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Melvin R. Laird served nine terms in the U.S. Congress representing Wisconsin’s Seventh Congressional District, where he was Chairman, Republican House Minority, member of the House Appropriations Committee, and the Republican Coordinating Council.

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