FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- "This is long overdue recognition for exemplary service by warriors of a previous era who answered our country's call to military duty to serve in Southeast Asia in a conflict we know today as - the Vietnam War," said Brig. Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams.
The commander of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin spoke to a standing-room only audience during the Fort Irwin Welcome Home Day Ceremony on April 7.
The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had proclaimed March 30, 2010, as "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day." Fort Irwin did its part by holding a celebration at which veterans from local communities and other areas attended.
Veterans arriving to this military installation that morning were welcomed by school children who lined the road outside Tiefort View Intermediate School. Motorcycle riding veterans, and those being transported by other vehicles, received cheers from kids waving and holding signs.
At the ceremony venue, veterans were greeted by unit leaders and by an audience who whooped and clapped loudly. Abrams spoke to the 170 veterans seated at the center of the Freedom Fitness Gym and to a crowd assembled alongside them. Abrams asked audience members to raise their hands if they had relatives or friends who served in Vietnam. Many acknowledged they had.
"So, as you can see, this war touched all of us," Abrams said. "It's personal for many of us."
He spoke of the condemnation that veterans received from the public and media when they returned from tours in Vietnam. He mentioned that some veterans did not wear their uniforms upon returning home - something that today would seem strange with veterans from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"In the '60's and early '70's, our Vietnam veterans were treated poorly - a gross understatement," Abrams said. "I remember vividly when I was a young kid, growing up as an Army brat, hearing how our returning veterans were treated. And I know that it broke the heart of everybody in our house. When [servicemembers] returned home, my brothers included, they were ostracized by their neighbors. This was a dark, dark period in our nation's history and for our armed forces."
Abrams praised Vietnam veterans for enduring the unwarranted, negative reception in the United States with dignity, honor and silently. They demonstrated the best of the American spirit by serving our country with honor, he said.
"You made enormous sacrifices," Abrams told the veterans present. "You performed amazing acts of heroism every single day. Our Vietnam veterans fought for our freedoms and for the freedoms of the oppressed people of South Vietnam."
Gary Johnson is a veteran who experienced what Abrams spoke about during the ceremony. Johnson served as a staff sergeant with B Troop in the 1st Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment from 1966 to 1967 in Vietnam. Johnson, who was a track commander atop an armored cavalry assault vehicle, served nine years until he was injured when his vehicle ran over a land mine in 1967. He was impressed with the magnitude of the 'Welcome Home' ceremony. He described it with one word.
"Beautiful," said Johnson, who traveled from Dewey, Ariz., to attend. "It's long overdue. It was a great ceremony."
Richard Lantello served as a crew chief on a Huey helicopter for the 326th Medical Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division from 1969 to 1970 in Vietnam. Lantello said he thought he would be attending a memorial-type of ceremony. He appreciated the celebratory event and said it was very nice.
"It was a lot more than I was expecting," Lantello said. "It was very emotional."
Lantello said that when he returned from Vietnam there were no receptions in contrast to today's 'Welcome Home' events for Soldiers of the current wars. It wasn't until his 10-year high school reunion that someone said, "Let's recognize our veterans." Originally from Whittier, Calif., Lantello was drafted while in college for having dropped one class from his schedule. He views today's volunteer Soldier as very professional and agrees that the public's support of today's Soldiers is positive.
"People like to go up to guys in uniform and say, 'Hey, thanks for serving,'" Lantello said. "It's very different now and it's good," Lantello said. "It's a good thing."
Spc. Isaac Nunez, a mechanic with 699th Maintenance Company here, said that he appreciates what Vietnam veterans did for our country. Nunez said that a 'Welcome Home' ceremony can be very touching for veterans, as it was for him after having returned from Iraq in December of 2009.
"They definitely deserve this," Nunez said about the Vietnam veterans. "To actually see this happen for them - it is an honor for them. When I went through it, I felt the same way - I believe the way they feel right now - because, it was a really emotional moment. To see this today, it really got to me."
Another person who said he felt strong emotions that morning was John Collins, a Vietnam veteran and telephone maintenance worker on Fort Irwin. Collins said that he will soon be sending a care package to servicemembers in Kuwait and Afghanistan and that he would be including a note that will read, "Thank you, I've been recognized." He appreciated the ceremony and was amazed by the reception.
"It was very well put together - it was about time," Collins said. "I knew it would be good, but this was fantastic."
Abrams said that during the Vietnam War, over 58,000 Americans were killed in action and over 200,000 Americans were wounded in action. Today, there are somewhere close to 2,000 servicemembers who are still officially missing in action.
Abrams gave a poignant description of war-time contributions by Vietnam veterans:
"The actions of these men and women - these Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines - are well documented in numerous books and movies," Abrams said. "They fought with great courage and personal valor. They helped build a South Vietnamese Army and an Air Force, and built life-long relationships with the people of South Vietnam. They built schools, villages, hospitals long before nation-building was in our Army's vocabulary."