By Vince Little, The BayonetJune 11, 2010
FORT BENNING, Ga. - For 35 years, Jim Baskin never told anyone he was a Vietnam veteran.
"It's not that we were ashamed of it," the retired Navy senior chief petty officer said. "There were just so many negative things about it."
Baskin, of Marietta, Ga., was among a few hundred Vietnam War veterans honored June 5 during a daylong "Welcome Home" celebration at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center. It continued at Fort Benning with a barbecue and concert featuring country music star Aaron Tippin.
At the morning ceremony, the crowd gave several lengthy standing ovations, tears flowed and emotions ran high as the Vietnam veterans moved up from World War II Company Street onto the museum's parade field. About 50 more joined them from the audience.
"As you can see, many veterans in the crowd did not want to go out there," said MG Michael Ferriter, the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning commanding general. "They had to be pushed by a loved one onto the field. These veterans stood in the shadows quietly and proudly for many years. They did not want the attention.
"We are so proud of our Vietnam veterans ... (and) we're here today to do the right thing. Welcome home, welcome home."
In August 1966, the first man Baskin shook hands with in Vietnam was Jimmy Clabo, a fellow sailor. The two were reunited at Saturday's tribute.
"It's breathtaking for us," Baskin said. "You gotta understand, we were crapped on when we got back ... (but) this is just awesome. It means so much to us because we never got that.
"I felt so proud to be an American walking through these young kids today ... They're going to take care of our futures."
PFC Greg Waldron of 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, was among today's Soldiers who surrounded the parade field and merged with the veterans after the ceremony.
"It got me choked up," he said. "I have a lot of World War II vets and Vietnam vets in my family ... I got a big place in my heart for veterans."
COL(R) Ralph Puckett, the guest speaker, talked about the criticism, hatred and derision cast on veterans 40 years ago who returned from Vietnam.
"The military was castigated unjustly for fighting in Vietnam," said Puckett, who served there and earlier in Korea. "You did your job, you did your duty, and you did it well ... To those who question why you went, you can say, 'I went, and you didn't.'"
Pete Koretz of Phenix City, a former first sergeant who did three tours in Vietnam during his 17 years in the Army, brought his 13-year-old son, Brandon, to the ceremony.
"It's very, very emotional - it really is," Koretz said, fighting back tears. "It feels good. It feels like a piece of closure.
"This is the first time I saw the Vietnam traveling wall. I recognized a lot of names, but it's that peace of saying goodbye and hello."
Donald Singleton, of Richmond Hill, Ga., served more than 19 months in Vietnam as a sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry (Airborne). He now advocates for improved veterans disability benefits, compensation and other services.
"It's a great thing they did today, but the medical situation for veterans is bad. Something needs to be done," he said.
SGM(R) Mike Lyde, who had two yearlong tours in Vietnam, said he hopes the "Welcome Home" ceremonies catch on across the United States but agreed that veterans often wait too long to get needed services.
"It's late coming, but it came," Lyde said of Saturday's event. "We need to continue taking care of these Soldiers who were there when their country needed them. We didn't run to Canada. We stayed and fought for our country. More needs to be done to take care of these veterans now."