BY JOHN PRADOS
Most veterans know that several countries besides the United States sent troops to South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson once conducted an initiative he called the “Many Flags” campaign to enlist these Free World Forces. There were Australians and New Zealanders, but by far the largest contingent of foreign troops was that dispatched by the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Anzacs made up at most a few thousand men, while the South Korean contingent peaked at about 50,000. Roughly 300,000 ROK infantry and marines fought in South Vietnam.
After many years, a South Korean Vietnam veterans movement is coalescing and becoming vocal. Beginning in the 1990s the Korean veterans started reaching out to each other. They quickly discovered they have the same postwar problems as American Vietnam veterans, including chemical contamination from the war zone. The Agent Orange issue has become an important point of unity for the ROK veterans.
A delegation of Korean veterans recently visited the United States to bring attention to their concerns. Thirty-two veterans, all with skin lesions or other evidence of contamination, carried placards with graphic photos of injuries, demands for compensation from the chemical companies against whom they have won a judgment in South Korea, and appeals for world peace.
From August 21 to 25, the ROK veterans held a vigil outside United Nations headquarters in New York City. They continued the vigil in Washington, D.C., from August 28 to September 1 in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Charles Choy, speaking for the Korean Disabled Veterans Association for Agent Orange, said: “We fought the same war. We want the same kind of recognition the American veterans got.”
The ROKs were stoic, patiently standing, sitting, and speaking to whomever would listen. Choy reported that the diplomats at the United Nations were receptive. They also connected with American veterans. Some Americans found that the ROK veterans’ other theme—world peace—followed logically from their experiences in Vietnam. Others found it strange.
Washington proved quieter. The ROKs were featured in the Korean press and interviewed by Agence France Presse. Asked whether his comrades had lobbied Congress, Choy speculated that many people were likely away on vacation during their vigil in the capital. Nevertheless, the ROKs felt that they had dramatized their issue, the injustices dealt to Korean veterans who receive no treatment and feel abandoned.