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As I was walking my boxer named Corporal one day, I decided it was time to put down on paper some of the things I’ve had running through my mind about serving in Vietnam. While this will mainly interest those who know something about these things, it is also for those who may someday want to know, such as those sons and daughters who find themselves rummaging through their Vietnam veteran father’s footlocker.

A ribbon is defined as “a woven strip or band of fine material.” Military ribbon bars, of course, are much more than that. They also tell a story. These few ribbons tell a simple story, but one I would like to share with you.

A military uniform is just not complete without at least one ribbon, so anyone who signed up or was drafted during the Vietnam War received the ribbon bar to the National Defense Service Medal. This medal has been awarded since 1950 to anyone serving in our nation’s armed forces during four designated periods of war or conflict—from June 27, 1950 to July 27, 1954; from January 1, 1961 to August 14, 1974; from August 2, 1990 to November 30, 1995; and from September 11, 2001, to a closing date yet to be determined. During that second period, the ribbon basically meant that you were willing to go to Vietnam, whether you were actually sent there or not. We jokingly called it the Firewatch Ribbon— meaning you earned it during basic training by walking firewatch at night to ensure the barracks didn’t burn down with all hands. This was the only ribbon you wore when you marched out for boot camp graduation, but it sure looked good. The soldiers of the current generation call this the National Road Guard Ribbon, thus proving that the famously cynical sense of humor of the American GI is still alive and well in the 21st century.

Everyone who went to Vietnam was authorized the ribbon bar to the Vietnam Service Medal. It meant you served in harm’s way whether you were a computer specialist working in an air-conditioned office in Saigon or a grunt up at the DMZ. The design of the ribbon was based on the South Vietnamese flag, with three vertical red stripes on a field of bright yellow. We used to joke that their flag should have been red with three yellow stripes, but the South Vietnamese armed forces did struggle for a long time against immense odds. The green vertical bars on each end represented the verdant landscape of Vietnam—the jungle.

The President of the United States awards a Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon to a unit for actions in a particular battle or period of time. There was one version of this ribbon for Navy and Marine units, and another quite different version for Army and Air Force units. In my case, the blue, gold and red ribbon was awarded to the 3rd Marine Division for its efforts to prevent the North Vietnamese Army from invading South Vietnam across the Demilitarized Zone. Far too many good, young Marines gave their lives doing that.

Awarded to any marine or sailor who was ever involved in combat against an enemy of the United States, the Combat Action Ribbon, although not quite the same as the Army’s Combat Infantry Badge, is the equivalent of the Combat Action Badge that began to be awarded only a few years ago. The Combat Action Ribbon is basically the grunt award of the Marine Corps, and we Marines are proud of it.

There is one other ribbon that means more to me in a nostalgic way than the others. It’s not a valor award. It is the ribbon bar to the Vietnam Campaign Medal, which was awarded by the government of South Vietnam to all American and allied military personnel who served there.

Look at the silver-colored scroll attachment with the date “1960 – .” Notice there is no ending date. At some point in the future Vietnam veterans were supposed to receive an updated attachment to the Vietnam Campaign Ribbon that would be inscribed with the closing date—perhaps 1970 or later. But that will never happen, because the government of South Vietnam no longer exists to authorize and issue such an updated ribbon attachment. That all ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell. Because of that, the original “1960 – ” ribbon attachment will always symbolize, to me at least, the unfinished campaign that was the Vietnam War.

I think the ribbon is actually more meaningful this way because the war never had an appropriate closure for many veterans. While most of us actually adjusted quite well in life, those events of so long ago still just seem to sit there in the back of our minds. I experience them occasionally, as I think most other grunts do, on a hike as I walk toward a tree line, or under the heat of a summer noonday sun, or as I slip between those cool, clean sheets at night, remembering what it was like to sleep in mud.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.