By Caroline Keyser (Fort Irwin USAG)March 31, 2011
On March 30, several hundred Vietnam-era veterans heard two words they had been awaiting for decades: thank you.
The veterans were part of Fort Irwin's second annual Vietnam-era veterans welcome home ceremony honoring those who served from 1960 to 1975. The veterans received the same type of welcome ceremony given to returning troops today, but which most of the veterans never received.
Retired Lt. Gen. Randall Rigby, who earned two bronze stars for his service in Vietnam, served as the ceremony's guest speaker. Addressing the veterans, he asked how many had deployed to and returned from Vietnam alone. At least a dozen in the audience raised their hands.
"A lot of (Vietnam) veterans feel they spent their time and made their sacrifice for nothing," Rigby said. "I disagree. What you see around you today is a product of your sacrifice. To our Vietnam vets, I would say to you, 'Thank you.' Thank you to your families and to your kids. Through your efforts, our forces are better trained, better prepared, and better led."
Before the ceremony began, the day's festivities kicked off with a motorcycle parade. A group of approximately 300 riders that included veterans, Fort Irwin Soldiers, and community members set off from Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow and rode nearly 40 miles to Fort Irwin. Along the way, passing motorists, who weren't necessarily aware of the ceremony, stopped to salute and applaud the veterans. Once the riders arrived on post, they were welcomed by Fort Irwin school children, who turned out en masse along the roadsides with American flags and homemade signs.
The veterans received a standing ovation as they marched into the ceremony tent together and walked past lines of Fort Irwin Soldiers who shook their hands and thanked them for their service.
"I can't believe the support we're getting here," said Robert "Scoop" Spaniol, a Vietnam-era veteran of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is now housed at Fort Irwin. "It's awesome."
Spaniol and his fellow 11th ACR veterans were full of praise for the men and women currently serving in the regiment.
"These kids are just fantastic, and their leadership, too," said Dana Holmgren, an 11th ACR veteran. "They volunteered to do this."
Brig. Gen. Terry Ferrell, commanding general of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, thanked the veterans and their families for coming to the ceremony. Many of the veterans and guests traveled 45 miles or more to attend, including Mac Hawkins, a 91-year-old survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Hawkins ended his military service before 1960, but said he wanted to support the Vietnam-era veterans.
"It's never too late to recognize those who have served our nation," Ferrell said. "Thank you for allowing us to do this for you."
While the welcome home ceremony focused on veterans who served in an era when the military was largely unpopular with the American public, the day was not about politics or pointing fingers, said Capt. Richard Barker, the master of ceremonies.
"It is not about the war, it is not about the blame," he said to widespread applause. "It is about giving them the welcome they deserve."
Rebecca Tennison, field representative from the office of California state assemblyman Steve Knight, presented Ferrell and Fort Irwin with a proclamation.
"It is a privilege and honor to be here today and to say a few words - and those words are, 'Welcome home, Soldiers, welcome home,'" Tennison said. "I call myself free because of each and every one of you."
The ceremony culminated with Fort Irwin leaders presenting the veterans with commemorative pins. Many guests said they were moved by the day's events.
"It was very overwhelming," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Blain, Eagle Team, Operations Group. Blain, a casualty assistance officer, said the welcome home ceremony struck a chord with him because he has worked to help repatriate the remains of a Soldier killed in action in Vietnam. "There were a lot of real tears. Vietnam vets come up to me and thank me all the time, but it's not me that deserves the thanks - it's them."