Vietnam-era transporters gather at Fort Lee
August 22, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (Aug. 22, 2012) --Like many before him, retired Sgt. 1st Class Dan Kritzer received a less-than-enthusiastic welcome upon his return to the United States after serving in Vietnam.
"I was one (of the troops who) got spat on in Washington when I came into the airport," said the former motor transport operator. "Others were spat on also because of all the protests going on within the country."
That was 1971, a time when the American public was embroiled in a polarizing debate over the military's role and presence in Vietnam. Since then, many have come to honor the service and acknowledge the sacrifices of the millions who answered the call for duty over the 14 years the U.S. was involved in the war.
Part of that sentiment was the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War event that took place Friday at the Fort Lee museum complex. The observance paid tribute to the service and sacrifice of those who served during the war, said Rich Killblane, the Transportation Corps historian who helped to organize the event.
Kritzer, a Leavittown, Pa., native assigned to the 64th Transportation Company, 124th Trans. Battalion, 8th Trans. Group during the war, was one of roughly 150 mostly Vietnam-era transporters who attended the occasion hosted by the Trans. Corps along with the Army Quartermaster and Women's museums. He said the event was a step toward helping veterans heal from the scars of the war and its unpopularity with some at home.
"This means everything," he said of the commemoration. "It gets the load off my mind about a welcome we should have had when we came back from Vietnam; that somebody would recognize what we did in service to our country."
Many Vietnam veterans have lamented over the spitting incidents that occurred upon their arrival at U.S. airports as the vilest expression of protest against those who risked their lives in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
In contrast, the commemoration event was celebratory in nature. The Vietnam veteran-attendees, many of them in their 60s and proudly wearing boonie hats along with old fatigues adorned with medals, were seen mingling about the complex parking lot smiling, joking and recalling old times with their buddies and current Soldiers. Equipment and vehicle displays, including several gun trucks with names like Ace of Spades, Psychotic Reaction and Eve of Destruction, served as period backdrops.
Brig. Gen. Stephen E. Farmen, the Army Chief of Transportation and one of the speakers for the event, paralleled the service of the transporters that served during the Vietnam era and troops he commanded during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but said the similarities ended with the homecomings.
"When the Vietnam War veterans came home, there were no parades or welcoming parties," he said. "Some groups wanted to make our Vietnam veterans ashamed of their service. This was a time of division, and it was not universally popular to be patriotic."
Farmen went on to say that the anti-war sentiment of yesteryear has given way to a newfound regard and respect for the nation's Vietnam veterans, and they have found it within themselves to reciprocate.
"Fortunately, this is not the case today," he said. "In fact, when my Soldiers came home, in many cases it was the Vietnam veteran who welcomed them at the airport no matter what time they arrived.
"Vietnam veterans protected the dignity of funerals for those fallen in recent wars. The Vietnam veterans have built homes for our wounded warriors.
"They've (contributed) a myriad of services not provided for them when they came home. It is the least that we can do to pay homage to them now."
The guest speaker, retired Col. Emit Knight, was a member of one of the first American units to step foot in Vietnam, arriving with the 8th Trans. Helicopter Co. in December 1961. He recounted his time there, noting the collective contributions of those who survived and who didn't. He was careful to keep the tone light, combining factual storytelling with bits of humor.
"Our orders were classified secret," he recalled when the unit was notified of its impending assignment. "They essentially read, 'to proceed to an overseas destination to participate in an exercise in excess of 30 days." The crowd responded with a chuckle. He continued -- "Our first piece of it lasted a year, and the exercise turned out to be a war that lasted 10 more years."
The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, and it would be years before there was a collective reckoning of the service and sacrifice of those who served. Jack Cole, a transporter assigned to the 444th Trans. Co., 27th Trans. Bn, 8th Trans. Grp. during the war, said the appreciation for his service came slowly and unpredictably.
"It was 22 years (after the war) and a lady came up to me in a store," said the Grand Rapids, Mich. native. "I don't even know how she knew I was a veteran; she said, 'Thank you for your service.' It shocked me so bad I didn't know what to say to her.
"Now, when we march in a parade, Army units will let the Vietnam vets march ahead of them," he continued. "It shows respect plus the guys nowadays are getting treated well because of what we got. Hey, they deserve it, and we're getting our recognition now. God bless America."
Cole, Kritzer and most of the Vietnam veterans at the event attended The Gathering, a reunion of Vietnam-era transporters that held its 10th annual event in Prince George County earlier in the week.
President Barack Obama proclaimed May 28, 2012 - Nov.11, 2025 to be a commemorative era in which Americans acknowledge the Vietnam War's the 50th Anniversary and recognize and honor the more than 3 million men and women who served in the war, the more than 58,000 who died and the more than 1,600 who are still missing.