Number of America's Vietnam War vets on the decline

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Debbie Debolt reflects at her husband’s gravesite at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.

Debbie Debolt expects she'll be sad and proud all at the same time Tuesday, Veterans Day.

She and her husband, Alan, a combat medic in the Vietnam War, always observed the holiday by honoring and remembering America's military veterans. She gave him a Veterans Day card every year.

But this will be her first Veterans Day without him: Debolt died at age 64 in February from cancer caused by Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. used to eliminate jungle cover for the Viet Cong.

"We always used to go over to the Great Lakes National Cemetery (in Holly) — where he's buried — for the Veterans Day ceremony," she said. "But Veterans Day has taken on a new meaning this year."

For years, Vietnam-era veterans have been the nation's largest group of former military personnel, but a half-century after the start of the U.S. combat mission, that's about to change. As these vets age into their 60s and 70s, they're beginning to make way for the next generation, veterans of the Gulf War era.

By next fall, Gulf War vets will outnumber Vietnam vets, 7.3 million to 7.1 million, and the gap will grow to 2 million by 2020 as the population of Vietnam-era vets falls to 6.3 million, according to projections from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Vietnam vets are succumbing to diseases and accidents that fell other seniors, but Paul Palazzolo, president of Vietnam Veterans of American Chapter Nine in Detroit, says they're "dying off at a faster rate because of Agent Orange. It's tragic, but that's life: We die off."

He added: "It's sort of like how all of the World War II and the Korean vets are dying off. It's now the Vietnam vets' time."

America's involvement in Vietnam dates to 1950, when the U.S. sent $15 million in aid and military advisers to help France retake control of its former colony in Indochina from communist forces. After losing the Dien Bien Phu air base, the French left Vietnam in the mid-1950s.

But the United States' role escalated and on March 6, 1965, America deployed 3,500 soldiers to the southeast Asian nation, launching a 10-year conflict.

By the end of the war, nearly 3 million American men and women had served in Vietnam. More than 58,000 were killed.

It's estimated the number of Vietnam-era vets will plummet from 30 percent of all military veterans in 2013 to less than 10 percent by 2043.

It's a trend that's already visible.

Fourteen years ago, Vietnam-era vets — the largest group of U.S. veterans — totaled 8.4 million, or 31.7 percent of the total veterans' population, according to the U.S. Census.

That number has fallen by more than 1 million, and will drop below 5 million by 2027, the federal government projects.

In 2000, the ranks of Vietnam-era veterans in Michigan totaled 286,862, or 31.4 percent of all of its military veterans, according to the Census.

Today, Michigan has about 242,562 Vietnam-era vets who account for 35 percent of all military veterans in the state, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many veterans groups say the decline of the Vietnam generation concerns them because newer vets don't join them.

"They tend to join online groups and groups on social media," said Christine Tonegatto-Salo, vice commander of the Victor I. Rieck American Legion Post 351 in Utica. "It's an issue."

Membership at her post had fallen to about 325 last year from about 600 in 2008, she said.

To address the problem, her post created a Facebook page and a website, and launched a membership drive last year, said Tonegatto-Salo, a retired Marine staff sergeant from Shelby Township who served in the Persian Gulf in 1993. The campaign drew more than 80 new members.

U.S. Army Spc. 4 Alan Debolt was deployed to Vietnam for just short of a year in 1970-71, his wife said. Afterward, the couple met through a friend, fell in love and married in 1975. They had a son, Alan Jr., in 1978.

In the years immediately after the war, Debolt experienced the criticism and snubs other Vietnam vets faced when they returned home, his wife said. As a result, he didn't talk much publicly about his time over there.

But in the 1980s, he joined Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 267 in their hometown of Dearborn and began attending veterans events and marching in parades. He often took his son with him.

He was proud of his service, she said, and he typically wore T-shirts that proudly declared he was an Army vet and patriot. He'd never pass up the chance to shake the hand of any veteran he met, she said.

"He was a veterans' veteran," Debbie Debolt said. "He remembered the name of every soldier he lost in the war. People were important to him."

A few months after he died, Flags For Fallen Military, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that honors fallen U.S. veterans, installed a 30-foot flagpole in Debolt's memory at the Myers Lake Campground in the Shiawassee County village of Byron. More than 200 people attended a dedication ceremony Aug. 31, Debbie Debolt said.

She said the site was chosen because the couple both worked at the campground, about 14 miles west of Fenton, for years and the family spent much of its free time there.

Debbie Debolt plans to attend the Veterans Day ceremony at the Great Lakes National Cemetery.

She said it'll mean a lot that her husband will be "remembered as both the man he was and the veteran he was. Remembering him hurts, but forgetting him would hurt even more."

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