President Donald Trump marked his first Veterans Day in office saluting American veterans in Vietnam, home to one of the most polarizing conflicts in U.S. history.
Trump on Friday traveled to Danang, Vietnam, site of an American air base during the war, and met with seven vets who had returned to the country where they lost comrades.
Thanking the veterans, Trump said: “I got to know them for a few minutes upfront, and they are definitely tough, smart cookies. We like them. I think they like me too.”
He then encouraged the veterans, organized by a group called The Greatest Generation Foundation, to speak. Several praised Trump, including Max Morgan, whose voice cracked and began to cry as he talked about fallen veterans.
“From my heart, thank you for your support of the military, and it’s an honor to be here as one of seven Vietnam veterans representing the 58,000 heroes who never made it home,” said Morgan, of Santa Clarita, CA.
Trump, who at times appears to struggle with displaying empathy, reached out to hug him. Trump signed a proclamation Friday honoring veterans of the Vietnam War, calling them “the heroes who fulfill your duty to our nation.”
On Twitter Friday, Trump honored the Marines, saying: “On behalf of an entire nation, Happy 242nd Birthday to the men and women of the United States Marines!”
Trump was in Danang as part of a lengthy trip through Asia to attend an international summit. Many government agencies are marking the Nov. 11 holiday a day early because it falls on a Saturday.
Like presidents before him, Trump has wrestled with the legacy of Vietnam. He did not serve but received draft deferments, one attained with a physician’s letter stating that he suffered from bone spurs in his feet.
In 2015, Trump derided Vietnam war hero Sen. John McCain, stating his fellow Republican wasn’t a “war hero” and adding, “I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967.
Over the decades, presidents have grappled with the conflict and its meaning for the country. President Lyndon Johnson abandoned his re-election quest after an escalation in the war led to more American deaths, while President Richard Nixon faced fierce criticism for expanding the conflict. President Bill Clinton’s deferment before he entered the Vietnam draft generated considerable heat during the 1992 presidential campaign.
More recently, questions about the service of George W. Bush and John Kerry were prominent in the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard but faced scrutiny over his status and why he was never deployed overseas. Kerry was a decorated veteran who threw away his medals and testified against the war before Congress. His service record was questioned in campaign ads.