REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Fifty-two years ago, the U.S. entered a war that continues to reverberate through society, and in the lives of the veterans who survived it.
Two of those veterans – Burnie Coats and David Lewis – were recognized April 28 in an emotional Vietnam Veterans Commemoration program hosted by Army Materiel Command at its Redstone Arsenal headquarters.
AMC is a commemorative partner of the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration program, which honors all U.S. veterans who served on active duty between Nov. 1, 1955, and May 15, 1975, regardless of whether they served in-country, in-theater or stationed elsewhere during the Vietnam War period. The national commemoration honors the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War through various community events recognizing Vietnam veterans and their families. Currently, there are more than 6 million Vietnam veterans.
Although the commemoration program recognizes veterans for their service during the Vietnam War period, their contributions continue to influence every aspect of the military, Lt. Gen. Donnie Walker said at the recognition program.
“Vietnam veterans built the foundations of today’s military,” he said. “Their leadership led to successes in Panama, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In fact, 11 of the last 13 Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were Vietnam veterans. These leaders established strategies, tactics, and standards that have ensured the success of our military. And I will tell you, there is not a General Officer or Command Sergeant Major in today’s Army who doesn’t point to a Vietnam-era veteran as their mentor and role model.”
Recognition, honor and reconciliation are important to many Vietnam veterans who endured abuse and hatred upon their return from war.
“When I got home, people in my hometown of Tuscaloosa (Alabama) thought I had been in jail for a year. They didn’t even know I was drafted and went to war,” Coats said.
“At a protest at the airport, I was almost spit on and I was called ‘baby killer.’ I understood there was a lot of controversy about Vietnam. But we actually had to go there because our country told us to. I really do appreciate this recognition 52 years later. This brings back memories.”
Coats, a 22-year AMC employee working in telecommunications, was drafted into the Army in 1969. His first assignment was with the 14th Engineer Battalion in the Vietnam, where he was a pole lineman at Firebase Sally and Firebase Quang Tri, which was the largest concentration of service members near the demilitarized zone.
Many times at night, Coats had to climb nearly 250 feet up a pole to secure and repair lights that provided security for the compound, risking his life to keep the lights on and his fellow service members safe.
During his year in Vietnam, Coats lived through several enemy attacks. During one such attack, Coats waited in the jungle for seven days while infantry forces fought off the enemy. He recalls being woken up by what he thought were mosquitos, only to realize they were bullets whizzing past him. He remembers the isolation of Vietnam and the bodies of countless Soldiers waiting to be shipped out of the war zone in helicopters.
Once he returned, Coats continued to serve, retiring after 28 years as a master sergeant with five Signal Corps military occupational specialties. He joined AMC in 1999, first working in South Korea, and then at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, before transferring with AMC to Redstone Arsenal as part of the Base Realignment of 2011. He and his wife Mi Kyong have two adult sons and a nine-year-old daughter.
“I am so appreciative today that Americans have opened their eyes and recognize veterans for what they have done,” Coats said.
During the commemoration program, fellow honoree Lewis was thinking about friends who he lost in the Vietnam War. Although he did not fight in Vietnam, Lewis face harassment while attending Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, as an Army ROTC cadet.
“The Army has been a big influence in my entire life,” he said. “ROTC allowed me to be the first one in my family to attend college. The Army paid for my tuition and lab fees and books, and they also gave me $50 a month for spending money. In the fine print, the contract said I had to give them six years of active duty. That was a small price to pay for an education.”
As a general rule, cadets would change out of their military uniforms into civilian clothes before leaving ROTC class. But, one particular semester, Lewis’ English class was on the other side of campus from the ROTC building, leaving him no time to change and make his class on time.
“I frequently had to go in uniform to class,” he said. “There were a lot of derogatory comments said. I was there to get an education and serve my country if I could. But that got me into a lot of physical altercations. There was a lot of bitterness because of that. But it’s all behind me now.”
In 1973, Lewis commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps, detailed to the Infantry. He joined the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, and as a 22-year-old platoon leader, was responsible for 44 Soldiers who were training and preparing to deploy to Vietnam. Although they didn’t receive orders to deploy, Lewis remembers many friends who did, and some who unfortunately never returned home.
After the war, Lewis trained at Redstone Arsenal to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer and served with the 636 Ordnance Company, 1st Support Command in Germany. With nine years of service, Lewis left the Army to work as a defense contractor. He joined the Army Reserve, serving another four years. In 2009, Lewis became a Department of the Army civilian to work as a plans officer for AMC Command Operations. He and his wife, Gresha, have four adult children and two teenage grandchildren.
Today, he is proud that Vietnam veterans have helped to change the way Americans think about Soldiers.
“I marvel at the fact that young Soldiers today are treated with the respect we didn’t receive,” Lewis said.
AMC’s commemoration, Walker said, can’t change the past, but it can help rectify the lack of recognition for Vietnam veterans during an era long gone.
Coats and Lewis “represent thousands among their generation who served our country honorably and never asked for anything in return,” said Walker, whose own father served two tours in Vietnam.
“Alongside them were the families who stood by them and supported them during these tumultuous times. In the history of our nation, all military families endure the hardship of separation and uncertainty, but unlike our veterans of today, who are welcomed home with waving flags and cheers, the families of our Vietnam veterans witnessed husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers returning home to a nation in turmoil.”