In terms of lives lost and the number of American military personnel wounded, the Vietnam War changed the culture of public perception throughout its 30-year span.
Referred to as the United States’ longest war from 1955 to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, more than 58,000 servicemen and women died in a land more than 13,000 miles away on the other side of the world as the U.S. South Vietnam and their military partners fought the communist Viet Cong (National Liberation Front).
American opinion of Vietnam shifted in the late 1960s where anti-war demonstrations grew and returning servicemen were met with scorn and hostility from the civilian population when they returned from Southeast Asia. Long overdue, the appreciation of those who served during the Vietnam War era has increased because of “welcome home” event.
In a “Welcome Home” ceremony Saturday at the Nevada Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Mills Park, more than 100 Vietnam veterans, family members and friends reflected on the Vietnam War and the opportunity to heal and bring closure for the country’s veteran who served during that time.
“When someone thanks me for my service, that gives me peace,” said Frank Reynolds, president of the Vietnam Veterans Association Chapter 388.
After all the years have passed since the 1970s, Reynolds said the silent majority has come out in support. A 21-year Marine Corps veteran, Reynolds recalled the stories he heard as a boy growing up in Illinois of soldiers who had fought in earlier conflicts such as the Spanish-American War. He enlisted at the age of 17 but deployed to Vietnam after his 18th birthday, having served there in 1970-71. Afterward, he decided to make the Marine Corps a career before retiring. Less than two years later, though, the Marine Corps called him up to serve during Desert Story in the early 1990s.
On special occasions, Reynolds appears before groups to discuss Vietnam. At an elementary school in Reno, he said a second-grade girl asked him if he had every killed another person.
“I told her on a playground, you get in a fight with a friend, how do you feel? You don’t feel very good. That’s how I felt,” he said.
Reynolds saw the war up close. As a member of a small unit under the umbrella of I Corps, he said the Viet Cong used guerrilla tactics to attack the troops; instead, Reynolds, who retired as a gunnery sergeant, said the American strategy reverted back to the history of the 1800s when American Indian warriors used guerrilla tactics against soldiers who invaded their territory. Ground forces in Vietnam studied and then used those same principles against the Viet Cong
Since March 29, 2012, National Vietnam Veterans Day recognizes more than 8 million men and women who served during the Vietnam Ear era. In Nevada, the war affected many communities as 151 servicemen and women died.
According to the local VVA chapter, the day is an opportunity for the community to experience first-hand the sacrifices made over 50 years ago.
“The main reason for holding events like this is to let our Vietnam brothers know they are not alone and they are appreciated,” the VVA said.
Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell, himself a Vietnam veteran and retired U.S. Navy captain, delivered the keynote address. Crowell served two tours in 1969-70 and for four months in 1972 onboard the destroyers USS Wiltsie and the USS Waddell. He first read a proclamation from Gov. Brian Sandoval that honored both the men and women who served and recognized the sacrifices associated with war. Crowell said he considered it an honor to speak at this year’s ceremony.
“As each year passes, our ranks becoming fewer but our memories and scars — both physical and mental— never fade away nor will they ever,” Crowell said.
Crowell told of an encounter with a friend who asked when Vietnam was referred to as a conflict. She said it was a war. saying more people died in Vietnam than the current population of Carson City. He mentioned the first casualty occurred on June 8, 1956, and that seven residents of Carson City were killed during the next 30 years.
“It is painful to think that the men and women whose names are carved in the memorial wall fought and died without ever receiving the recognition and appreciation of their country,” Crowell said. “But despite the successes of our fighting men and women, we came home to a country that for the most part shunned us — where we were never recognized or thanked for going in harms way to support, protect and defend the liberties we should dear in our nation.”
Crowell added many veterans and their families felt the sting of those days when the troops came home to hostility displayed by their fellow Americans.
The Carson City mayor also talked about Honor Flight Nevada, a project he says, brings veterans together. Crowell was a member of the first Honor Flight Nevada trip for Vietnam veterans to the nation’s capital that occurred last year when they flew to Washington, D.C. for three days. An advocate of the Honor Flight Nevada program, Crowell said Nevada was first in the nation to provide a trip solely for the Vietnam vets to the capital. Since then a chapter in Toledo, Ohio, sponsors an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. for its Vietnam veterans.
He described the trip as one veterans will never forget. At each stop when veterans changed planes, he said fellow citizens stood and clapped.
“The tour ends at the memorial wall where when the wreath is placed in your honor and the honor of our fallen comrades, and where there is ample time to reflect, to cry and for many, loosen the yoke of war that has been carried all these many years,” he said.
Upon their return to Reno, he said the welcoming ceremony is one that no one will forget.
As he concluded his comments, Crowell said the sting and scorn of the past are gone for many: “You are appreciated. You are special. And so should you be.”
Vern Horton of Carson City served one tour as a sailor in the U.S. Navy from 1959-1963. Although he and his shipmates from the heavy cruiser USS Helena were not directly involved with the Vietnam War, he definitely was part of the era. Horton said for years people snubbed veterans when they returned home from Vietnam, but he doesn’t feel that’s the atmosphere now. He shifted his comments to veterans needing help.
“The need for assistance is a two-edge situation because the government has really come up short, but a lot of veterans don’t know what’s available. So it’s important for an organization such as ours and for the government to get the word out that there’s a lot of help available.”
Tom Spencer, incoming president of the Carson City chapter of VVA, served as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army from 1968-1970, 18 months in Vietnam. He showed on his hat a Silver Service Star and explained it was awarded for five campaigns that occurred while he was in Vietnam.
“I was a truck driver hauling fuel. I drove in a convoy that had 13 ambushes,” said Spencer said, who was assigned to the 359th Transportation Company, which also served in Afghanistan.
The memories of his service in Vietnam, he said, are in full display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Va. One of the displays shows a model of a Viet Cong ambush of one of the convoys. When Spencer and his visited the museum, he closely looked at the display.
“I was actually in that ambush,” Spencer said.
The feelings since the end of fighting in Southeast Asia, as Crowell, said may be fading, Spencer agreed by saying the acceptance of the veterans is heartwarming now. For 36 years after the war, though, he said didn’t wear a hat indicating he was a Vietnam veteran.
Yet, he said the ceremonies and recognition are both welcomed.
“A lot of guys I know feel it’s a long time coming,” he said.