Under the waving American flag, about 60 Vietnam War veterans gathered Thursday at the Greenwood County Veterans Center to receive the warm welcome so many missed 46 years ago.
The Mount Ariel Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution joined with the veterans center staff to host the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Celebration. The guests of honor, many wearing caps emblazoned with military sigils and symbols of their service, sat in the front few rows.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Fox was among the guest speakers. He recalled the advice he and his fellow airmen were given on their way back home.
“We were briefed not to wear the uniform of the United States when we arrived home. What a way to run a war,” he said.
That’s what this ceremony hoped to remedy, said Olivia Reynolds, Mount Ariel DAR member and organizer of the ceremony.
“I’m the wife of a veteran and the mother of a veteran,” she said. “When my husband came home, he received an awesome welcome home. I can’t imagine what these men went through.”
To help them honor these veterans, Mount Ariel Regent Helen Nazzaro said the chapter reached out to the organization Wreaths Across America. The nonprofit hosts an annual ceremony of laying wreaths on the tombstones of veterans at cemeteries from Arlington throughout the country. It also helps present welcome home ceremonies for Vietnam veterans, and tours the country with a “mobile education unit” — a trailer featuring displays of information highlighting veterans and the efforts to honor them.
“Our mission statement at Wreaths Across America are three words: Respect, honor and teach,” said Stefan Brann, drive and ambassador with the group. “Jen (Merrill) and I, we get to interact with veterans every day, to share personal stories and thank-you’s and bring these men and women out to have a dialogue.”
The veterans, their families and the Wreaths Across America crew were joined by dozens of eighth-grade students from Edgewood Middle School, who came out to watch the event and pay their respects. Seeing the crowd come out for this event, Nazzaro said she was borderline speechless.
“I can’t even put into words what it means,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, to see these men honored. Some of these veterans get emotional when you even tell them you want to thank them.”
Besides Fox, state Rep. John McCravy was also a guest speaker at the ceremony. He said he was 17 years old when the Vietnam War ended, and recalled sitting on the living room floor by his father, watching news from the frontlines play out on their television.
“When I was your age, the Vietnam War was first up on the news every night,” he said to the middle schoolers.
He denied the idea that the United States lost the Vietnam War, and thanked the service members in attendance for their personal willingness to sacrifice for their country.
For retired Army Sgt. 1st Class James Sanders, who was among the veterans honored Thursday, he said it was a daylong overdue. Sanders served in 1968-69 and was caught in the Tet Offensive. When he was dropped off in the U.S. after his deployment, he felt hated in the atmosphere of civil unrest in the country then.
“It’s a joy now, puts a joy in my heart to see all the veterans here,” he said.
It was also a joy for Greenwood County Veterans Affairs Director Rosalind Burke, who helped host the event. When she spoke to the gathered crowd, she quoted a 92-year-old World War II veteran she spoke with last week. She asked him what message he would have to the Vietnam Veterans, and he put it plainly.
“I’m glad you made it home.”