1,000-plus welcome home Vietnam vets
CONCORD - It felt like all of New Hampshire turned out Saturday to welcome home a generation of warriors who served the nation in a foreign war.
The celebration was 40 years overdue.
Saturday was officially Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day in New Hampshire, and more than 1,000 people filled the New Hampshire Army National Guard hangar for an emotion-packed ceremony.
Former state Sen. Gary Lambert last year sponsored the legislation to commemorate Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day on March 30 this year, the 40th anniversary of the end of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Yesterday, he offered three words: "It's about time."
Growing up, Lambert recalled, he wanted to be just like the Vietnam veterans he saw on the TV news. And they're still his heroes, the Marine Corps reservist told them.
"That thing called the Cold War? We won it, and we won it in part because of you," he said.
Emcee Peter St. James started it all off with a request to the crowd: "Shake the foundations of this hangar as we welcome home our Vietnam veterans."
They did just that.
Maj. Gen. William N. Reddel III, adjutant general of New Hampshire National Guard, said the nation "failed" the Vietnam veterans. Yet, he said, it has been these veterans who have made sure those who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan have been honored when they get home.
On this day, Reddel said, "we're here to say thank you to the Vietnam veterans for serving your nation, thank you for looking out for those veterans who came after you and, finally, to say welcome home."
Gov. Maggie Hassan expressed the state's gratitude.
"Decades ago, when you were called upon to serve, you did," she said. "When you were called upon to leave everything you loved, you did. When you were called upon to leave your jobs, you did. When you were called upon to risk your lives for us and for your fellow soldiers, airmen and Marines, you did."
But she said, "When you returned home, you were given no parades, no ceremonies. Instead, you carried the pain of the injuries you suffered, the memories of what you had endured, and the belief that the very people you protected were ungrateful for your sacrifices."
"It is my humble honor today to make sure that we say: Welcome home," Hassan said. "Thank God you're home."
Brig. Gen. Carol Protzmann, deputy adjutant general of the National Guard, said the nation has learned from the Vietnam experience "that we might disagree about a war, but that we must never hold hostage those we ask to protect our freedom with their lives."
"Our wisdom is born of your pain, but we have learned," she said. "We will never again forget the sacrifice each and every military member so freely endures for the safety and security of this great nation."
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said those who served in Vietnam "did everything that we asked them to do for our great nation, but too many of those who served never saw their bravery or their courage properly recognized."
"That was wrong, and today is about righting that wrong," she said.
And U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told the veterans, "This ceremony and this expression of gratitude is long overdue. I thank you for your patriotism, for your service, for your valor and for your heroic dedication to this country."
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., recalled that somehow, in the political debate over the war, "Those who were serving became political collateral damage."
To the veterans, she said, "I see you and I know what courage you have, what generosity of spirit you have, to protect the next generation."
The loudest applause was saved for two of their own.
John O'Brien of Orford, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, recalled it wasn't just the protesters back then who hurt the returning service members, "but our leaders at the highest level did little to ease our pain."
"We did what our country asked and got blamed for our patriotism," he said.
Earlier this year, O'Brien sent letters to all town moderators in New Hampshire asking them to honor veterans at town meetings, with special recognition to the Vietnam vets.
Yesterday, he raised his hat to his comrades. "We as Vietnam veterans stand together and will be forever proud. Welcome home!" he declared, as the crowd cheered, whistled and waved their hats in return.
Bob Jones, vice president of Northeast POW/MIA Network, asked all to remember the 1,652 service members listed as missing in Southeast Asia, six of them from New Hampshire. And he asked them to push political leaders for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho, a u.s. soldier missing in Afghanistan since 2009.
"Bring him home," he thundered over the cheers of the crowd. "When one American is not worth the effort, then we as Americans have lost."
Before the ceremony, Bruce King of Lyme, a Marine Corps veteran, was posing for photos with his friend George Parker of Boscawen in front of the Guard's Black Hawk helicopter, on display for the occasion.
King said the ceremony was "way overdue."
"I think people have finally realized we volunteered - at least I did - to go and fight for my country," he said.
King, 62, quit high school and went to Vietnam, the youngest in his unit. A combat engineer, he was assigned to "search-and-clear" missions. He lost most of his hearing from artillery fire and today wears hearing aids.
Parker, 56, said he was "the last of the 17-year-olds to go over" when he went to Vietnam in 1975; he was there when Saigon fell to the North.
He served on a Navy patrol boat that was escorting Vietnamese refugees who crowded into small boats to escape the Viet Cong. "I remember the people reaching out, holding their babies out to us, saying, 'Take our babies,'" he recalled.
And, motioning to the Black Hawk, Parker said, "I remember them pushing these choppers off the aircraft carrier to make room for the refugees."
Saturday, he said, was "a day of recognition for what we did."
As the ceremony closed, the hangar filled with the sound of 1,000-plus voices singing, "God Bless America," followed by the somber tones of taps.
Then Gen. Reddel asked one last thing of those in attendance: To reach out to Vietnam veterans who were not there.
"I need you to tell them that we are proud of their service," he said. "And most of all, I need you to tell them: Welcome home."