Vietnam vets honored on 50th anniversary: What was it about? The war by the numbers.

Tuesday the Veteran’s Administration, the Department of Defense and 9,000 organizations across the country will honor the nation’s Vietnam Veterans.

An initiative from the Secretary of  Defense in 2008 created a program to honor the nation’s Vietnam veterans and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the country’s involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia.

A presidential proclamation in 2012 extended the celebration of the veterans of the war from Memorial Day in that year  to Veterans Day in 2025.

According to the VA, the “commemoration recognizes all men and women who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam—November 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975.  Nine million Americans, approximately 7.2 million living today, served during that period, and the commemoration makes no distinction between Veterans who served in-country, in-theater or were stationed elsewhere during those 20 years.  All answered the call of duty.”

The length of the celebration seems  a bit  unusual, but the part the United States played in the war wasn’t exactly "usual," either.

Here’s a brief look at how America got there, who participated  and who died.

The conflict

The Vietnam war – called officially the Second Indochina War – began in 1954 when Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Viet Minh  party came to power in northern Vietnam.

Vietnam had been ruled by France since 1880, but by the mid-20th century, a wave of nationalism had gained a foothold, and, behind Ho, the French were booted from the country.

The peace accord that followed the war called for Cambodia and Laos, which were part of France’s holdings in the region, to receive their independence. Vietnam was split into two regions at the 17th parallel. Ho led the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem led the new Republic of South Vietnam in the south. After a plan for elections was derailed, Ho moved to topple Diem’s government and war between the two Vietnams had begun.

U.S. advisers first came to the country in 1955 to aid the South Vietnamese in their fight  against the Viet Minh forces. From that point, the American involvement in the conflict grew with the United States eventually sending some 9,087,000 troops to the  country.

In 1973, the United  States withdrew the last American troops. Two years later, the war ended when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the North Vietnamese.

Here are some of the statistics from one of America’s longest conflicts:

  • One-third of the Americans who participated, were drafted to fight. Two-thirds volunteered.
  • Whether they volunteered or were drafted, 1 out of every 10 soldiers were injured or killed during Vietnam.
  • 11,000 of those who served were women.
  • 85 percent of those who served were white.
  • 12.2 percent of  those  who served were black.
  • The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was 21 – five years younger than the average for the men who served in World War II.
  • In Vietnam, the average  infantryman saw 240 days of combat in a year.
  • 79 percent  of those who served in Vietnam had a high school education or better.
  • 58,220 Americans were killed in the war, according to the National Archives. In some places, the number is higher by 70 or so. In 1995, the Vietnamese government released estimates of the number of its citizens killed in the war.
  • 2 million civilians and 1.35 million North and South Vietnamese soldiers.
  • The average age of the American soldier killed in Vietnam is 23.1 years.
  • The average age of the U.S. Marine killed in Vietnam was 20.4 years.
  • The average age for an American officer killed in Vietnam was 28.4 years.
  • The oldest soldier killed in Vietnam was 62; the youngest was 16.
  • Of those killed, 17,539 were married.
  • The state with the highest death rate of Vietnam War casualties was West Virginia.
  • The first man to die in Vietnam was James Davis, in 1961.
  • 257 people were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.
  • Operation Ranch Hand sprayed 11,000,000 gallons of "Orange" on the jungles of the country. (The word "agent" was later added to the name.) That number is equivalent to three gallons an acre or .009 on an ounce per square foot.
  • On March 29, 1973, 43 years ago today, the  last U.S. combat troops left  Vietnam. Two years  one month and one day later, on April 30, 1975, the last few Americans still in South Vietnam were airlifted out of the country as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
  • More than 1,700 Americans who served in Vietnam are listed as missing.

Check out the Vietnam War 50th Commemoration website for  events near your area.

 Sources: The National Archives;  United States Army Center of Military History;; "No More Vietnams," by Richard Nixon; National Vietnam Veterans Foundation