Grateful community embraces Vietnam veterans
April 2, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Despite the cold, windy and rainy day, the third annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event at the Veterans Memorial in downtown Huntsville on Saturday was enough to warm the hearts of those who attended.
The rain held off during the 1 p.m. ceremony, giving community leaders the chance to share their words of thanks with Vietnam veterans in the audience at the ?"A Time for Healing" event. During the ceremony, a symbolic wreath was placed for those killed in the Vietnam War, a Vietnam veteran airman received a belated Distinguished Flying Cross and the first recipients of new recognitions from the event host -- the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1067 -- were recognized.
?"Your presence truly reflects the unique character of this community and the support you give to those who wear the uniform of any generation," Lt. Gen. David Mann, who represented Team Redstone at the Welcome Home event, told the audience.
Mann, who leads the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, recalled how Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned from war in the 1960s and 1970s, saying ?"our country has not always embraced our Vietnam veterans as they deserved," and pointing out that there were no welcoming crowds, no parades and no patriotic commercials on television to greet those veterans.
Mann, who grew up as the son of a serviceman, read the staggering number of losses that America realized from the Vietnam War -- 58,220 service members with 47,434 of those lost in action. Those losses continue today with 9,800 casualties from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, with 6,785 of those lost in action. As a member of a family who has lost a Soldier to war, Mann said he understands the devastation such losses cause in a family.
?"Events like these are very important, are extremely important not only for our veterans but also for our communities and our nation," Mann said.
Guest speaker state Sen. Bill Holtzclaw was only in the third grade when the Vietnam War ended in 1973. Even so, nine years later, at age 18, he enlisted in the Marines and learned the lessons of Vietnam from his drill instructor.
Those lessons, which are still with him today, include such jungle warfare teachings as: If something makes you look up, look down. If something makes you look down, look up; You risk losing the ground you?'ve gained at the moment you think the battle is over; Battles should be fought by boots on the ground and not by politicians thousands of miles away; Leave no one behind; and Just because the battle is over does not mean the war is won.
Holtzclaw?'s own return from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Restore Hope, the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1992-93 was much different from the reception Vietnam veterans received, he said. Instead of being shunned and insulted, he returned to a hero?'s welcome thanks to the Vietnam veterans who came home before him.
?"We as a nation must be ready to answer the call when our veterans come home," Holtzclaw said. ?"They were there when the nation called. We must be there when they call. Thank you, Vietnam veterans, for teaching generations like mine these hard lessons. Thank you for honor and duty, taking up arms, standing in the gaps and defending our way of life."
During the ceremony, narrator Joe Bongiovanni, a Vietnam Marine veteran, introduced the audience to Vietnam Airman 1st Class Richard Gonzalez.
?"Today we are going to correct an oversight. As sometimes happens service members are approved for awards but the award is never officially presented. Today we will correct one such action," Bongiovanni said.
With those words, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Steven Hansen presented Gonzalez with the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions he took on April 9, 1972, in Thailand while serving as a B-52 gunner for the 30th Strategic Wing at U-Tapao Airfield. Gonzalez was flying in the number two position of a three-ship B-52 formation engaged in close, heavy bombardment support for allied forces in South Vietnam, when his aircraft was attacked by hostile forces and sustained major damages from a surface-to-air missile. Gonzalez assisted the crew by reporting visible damages, which contributed immensely to the decisions that resulted in a successful landing.
Also, the family of missing in action Air Force Tech Sgt. E.A. Phillips was presented with a plaque of recognition prior to their presentation of the Tech Sgt. E.A. Phillips Humanitarian Award to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Charlie Miller. The award recognized Miller?'s work in the local community, including mentoring youth, caring for homeless veterans and providing pastoral counseling for Vietnam veteran families; and for his participation on several local boards and membership in the Army Ordnance Hall of Fame.
Other first-time awards were created in the names of two local veterans who also were first-time recipients of the awards. Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Colin Hargrove, who is a Vietnam Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, received the CSM Colin Hargrove Service to Veterans Award for his work as a charter member and leader of the North Alabama Veterans Mental Health Council, where he is working with Veterans Affairs to create support opportunities for veterans in North Alabama. Retired Col. Leo Thorsness, who was a Vietnam prisoner of war and is a Medal of Honor recipient, received the Col. Leo K. Thorsness Guardian of Freedom Award for a lifetime of selfless service to military veterans and families.
Hargrove received his award surrounded by several family members, saying to the audience ?"without the people standing next to me I probably wouldn?'t be here. I owe everything to my family."
Thorsness said that, although he was receiving an honor, he felt that all veterans and service members in the audience deserved recognition.
?"Whoever raised their hand and took the oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, you should be recognized. You raised your hand," he said. ?"And so, too, do your families. How tough it is for families sometimes. I am so pleased with the way the military has improved the care of families. Take care of our veterans and take care of our families."
Prior to the ceremony, Vietnam veterans and their families milled around the memorial, checking out a Huey Gunship that was on display, enjoying music provided by the Army Materiel Command Band and visiting with each other. The helicopter was reconditioned by the North Alabama chapter of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.
?"We take it to schools and to various patriotic events," Ralph Weber of the helicopter club said. ?"It brings back memories for Vietnam veterans and is a living history for the kids."
Club member Don Bisson, who flew Hueys in Vietnam during two tours, brought his 7-year-old grandson Nathan Cook to the ceremony.
?"We need to let the next generations know what we went through and the best way to say it for those who don?'t know is that these helicopters were a taste of freedom the protected will never know. They need to see that freedom is not free," he said.
?"We did this for love and devotion of our country. Regardless of right or wrong, we went to fight for our country. We went because our country told us to."
Participants in the ceremony included the Army Materiel Command Band, Butler High School Air Force JROTC and Vietnam veteran Earl Watts, who sang ?"My Brother," which he wrote for Vietnam veterans.