By Ms Caroline N Keyser (Irwin)April 16, 2012
FORT IRWIN, Calif. (April 16, 2012) -- On April 4, two simple words made a big impact on several hundred Vietnam-era veterans gathered at Fort Irwin -- "thank you."
The veterans took part in Fort Irwin's third annual Vietnam-era Veterans Welcome Home ceremony. The day's events kicked off with a motorcycle parade made up of several hundred veterans, Soldiers, and community members who made their way from the California Veterans Home-Barstow to Fort Irwin.
On reaching the installation, the riders were greeted by the students of Fort Irwin Middle School and Tiefort View Intermediate School, who lined the streets armed with signs, flags, and enthusiasm. For some veterans, it was the first time anyone had thanked them for their service.
"I didn't get a very good welcome, so it puts a smile on your face to finally be welcomed home," said Mike Miller, an employee of Northrop Grumman at Fort Irwin and Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. "At one time I wouldn't even admit I was a Vietnam veteran."
The motorcycle parade ended at Army Field, where veterans and the community could observe static displays of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as well as UH-1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopters.
"The 2012 welcome home event isn't about the war, it isn't about blame, and it isn't about the protesters," said Hayley Violand, the event's master of ceremonies. "It is about understanding."
Brig. Gen. Terry Ferrell, commander of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, thanked the veterans for taking the time to attend the ceremony.
"What is so fitting about today is that this welcome home ceremony is taking place at the National Training Center, because these kids coming through here will be the future veterans," Ferrell said.
The ceremony's featured guest speaker, Chief Warrant Officer 5 John Harris, holds several unique historical distinctions. In addition to being one of the last Vietnam veterans to continue serving in uniform, he was also the last Army reservist to be voluntarily mobilized to Vietnam, and was among the last 500 Americans to leave the country on Jan. 28, 1973. A UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot for 40 years, Harris reflected on the aircraft's role in the Vietnam War and in the lives of Soldiers. The Huey was officially retired from the National Training Center's inventory in December 2011.
"To those assembled today who have had the honor to fly, crew or ride in this magnificent machine, we are the chosen ones," Harris said. "No other helicopter in the history of aviation evokes the feelings she does."
Harris wore his Army uniform from his Vietnam days to the ceremony, which he said was dedicated to the memory of Anthony Dal Pozzo, Harris' platoon mate and the last American helicopter pilot and Huey crew member to be killed in Vietnam.
"Those of us who went know we did serve honorably, that we did the right thing with the right intention," Harris said. "We paved the way for our current brethren. Thank you and welcome home, my brothers."
Fort Irwin Soldiers presented the veterans with commemorative pins as a sign of respect and gratitude for their service.
"It's really good how they treat the Soldiers now," said Stephen Wright, a retired Army sergeant first class who served in Vietnam. "They're the ones who deserve respect."