Vietnam veterans honored decades after sacrifice

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Melissa Harvey
  • 301st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Ceremony that took place in a hangar at Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, Texas April 22 helped me understand the impact of that war on service members and their families.

This war era spanned two decades, from 1955 to 1975, with the most intense U.S. military involvement in combat starting in the mid-1960s.

After serving in combat, seeing comrades injured, killed, or declared missing in action military members returned home. They were not greeted with parades or celebrations, but rather protests and maltreatment.

But on this night, more than four decades later, ‘Welcome Home’ banners made by children decorated the walls of the hangar, which had been turned into a Vietnam War History Center. There were a myriad of photos, maps, uniforms, weaponry, and even a helicopter on display.

It was to this welcoming environment veterans, former South Vietnamese military personnel, families, friends, and community members arrived. I could feel the energy in the room rising with all the talking, eating, and reminiscing. As I watched them mingle, I truly had no idea the impact this night would have on me.

After people ate and took group photos, the ceremony began. I’d been waiting for this part because I was a photographer for the ceremony, as I have been for other assignments. But this event would soon prove to be different.

At the beginning of the ceremony, base senior leadership, special guests and hometown heroes were honored. The colors were presented and the national anthem sung.

Then the narrator brought our attention to a single table near the stage. The energetic mood in the room changed to one of quiet remembrance.

This round table, covered with a black cloth, and set for one holds significance for so many in our nation. On it was a solitary lit candle with a Purple Heart medal and blank dog tags. This table was set in honor of each military member who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War.

It was at this point the ceremony became more than just an event to me. The truth of what these service members and their families sacrificed during the war, and after, became very real. As I took photos, I thought about these veterans and their comrades they must be thinking of who didn’t come home alive and how emotional it must be for them.

I was then struck by the thought of my own mortality and how my death would affect my family. While Vietnam was the war of my father’s generation, global terrorism is mine. War, no matter when or where it is fought, highlights our mortality.

My thoughts switched back to the ceremony as a second table became the focus.

This one was set for five. It represented Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard members who are or were missing in action from all wars. The gravity of the sacrifice of so many is absolutely overwhelming. I can’t even begin to think of all the birthdays, holidays, and special moments missed by those who never came home.

On April 30, 1975 the Fall of Saigon to North Vietnam effectively marked the end of the Vietnam War, but for some, it marked the beginning of decades of waiting for the return of loves ones.

Remains of service members are still being found and returned to families. But for some the wait continues.

After these somber moments, Capt. Mike Steffen, NAS Fort Worth JRB’s commanding officer, spoke to those in attendance.

“I want to thank the U. S. Government for instituting a national effort to do what should have been done 50 years ago: thank and honor our Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice…and properly welcome them home,” he said.

Steffen concluded his speech by presenting a memento to all Vietnam veterans by senior officers from multiple commands on base. They were given a lapel pin that features an eagle’s head representing courage, honor, and dedication to service; stripes representing our flag; and six stars in honor of our allies who served alongside the United States and an inscription thanking Vietnam veterans for their service.

As I photographed them walking across the stage to receive their pins, I made eye contact with a few. What I saw there was pride, in spite of all they went through, they still served their country and nothing can take that away.

Then a man, who came to America in 1981 as a 14-year-old refugee boy from Vietnam, addressed the crowd.

“I want to let you know sincerely, from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the Vietnamese-American community…we owe you a great debt of gratitude,” he said. “Without you, without your struggle and sacrifice many lives would not have been extended, including mine. You gave safety, which prolonged our lives. And even though you didn’t give us life, you gave us liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness.”

That boy, who is now Tarrant County Precinct Two Commissioner, Andy Nguyen, also presented a Resolution of Recognition to Steffen in honor of all the work the command has dedicated to making sure Vietnam veterans are recognized and thanked.

It was such an honor to witness this moment when Vietnam veterans received appreciation for their sacrifice so many years after their service. I saw tears in eyes of some as Nguyen’s speech concluded. I know I had them in mine.

Near the end of the ceremony, it was time for four Vietnam veterans to share their experiences of war.

One of them, Mr. Dave Roever, who served in the Navy as a river boat gunner in Vietnam addressed Nguyen during his speech.

“Today you thanked all of us,” he said. “We thank you for being a man of honor who would show respect to all these Vietnam vets. Their blood, their DNA, their sacrifice has seldom been acknowledged; tonight you did it in a beautiful way.”

On this night, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, those who are still missing, and those who returned home to their families were remembered and honored by those who refuse to let their service be forgotten.

Thank you to those who served in the Vietnam War era and for sharing your stories with the next generation.

To the families who still wait, we wait with you.
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