Safe Harbor Hospice hosted its second annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event, March 26 at the Madison County Courthouse steps.
The event coincided with National Vietnam War Veterans Day, which commemorates the sacrifices of Vietnam veterans and their families. It is part of a national effort to recognize the men and women who were denied a proper welcome upon returning home more than 40 years ago.
The ceremony began with Safe Harbor Hospice CEO Aaron Proffer welcoming everyone and an opening prayer by his grandfather, World War II Veteran Gene Proffer. Then the Presentation of Colors was given by VFW Post 5471.
“Today we come here to right a wrong in American history,” Aaron Proffer said. “Today we come together to bring honor to our Veterans who have served and sacrificed for the sake of freedom with an extra emphasis on those who served in the Vietnam War. These brave soldiers served our country selflessly and came home to a not so nice reception. Today with your help we are making a pledge to learn from our past and give honor to those who put on the stars and stripes to defend our freedom.”
Aaron Proffer said we are not trying to change history, but wanted to better serve our military heroes in the future. He said, he hopes this is a change that continues day after day and into future generations.
This year, the crowd was honored with special guests from the Fredericktown R-I School District. The students led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance before the KABMS choir sang the National Anthem, later the FIS choir performed America the Beautiful, and FES choir gave a touching performance of God Bless America.
This year’s guest speaker was Vietnam Veteran Jim Williams, who served in the U.S. Navy from Jan. 26, 1969 until Sept. 15, 1975.
Williams said, after landing in Da Nang, Vietnam he was assigned to a unit who’s job was to extradite “friendly” Vietnamese people. He said, his unit consisted of two Montagnard tribesmen, two Green Beret, two Marine recons, and himself as the radio operator.
“We got onto a chopper and went in country, where we were and what we did remains in my mind and will never be shared, except contrary to popular sentiments at the time, we never killed a baby or an innocent person,” Williams said. “We did our job, defended our country from communism and that was all we thought about, not the color of our skin, not our nationality, not our economic position, we were and still are Americans, and history will record that what we did was honorable and right and we were not the evil monsters we were painted to be by the news media.”
Williams said, he left Vietnam and he does not wish to return mentally, physically or in any stories or experiences.
“The only things I will tell you is that after two tours and seeing the things I saw and lived through, I still believed in what we were doing to help the Vietnamese people,” Williams said. “You see we practiced a little known thing as service, duty, honor, loyalty and respect to our country, as well as trying to help the little guy, and in our minds and hearts that is what we were doing.”
Williams said, the loss of people, respect, mistrust, stolen youth and innocence, peace of mind and the physical effects, as well as the mental tortures they suffered and the nearly 60,000 Americans lost, was avoidable.
“When we were returning home, we were told not to wear our uniforms,” Williams said. “We disputed that and six of us came home in uniform and proud to be wearing it. That could have been a mistake, but to this day I do not regret it. We were harassed, spit on, rotten vegetables and eggs thrown at us and even had a young woman steal my cap and set it on fire telling me how I burned babies. We also had some boys standing on the observation deck at Lambert, urinating on us as we walked in.”
Williams said, “Welcome Home” was not something the troops heard or enjoyed.
“We were called names, looked upon as murderers, criminals, second class or sub human people and they tried to make us feel like traitors to our country,” Williams said. “All this was very confusing. We were for the most part insulated from the severity of the mood in this county. So it shook a lot of us to the core and to this day still leaves some very bad feelings about many things. I mention that to accentuate the internal battles we fought and still fight today.”
Williams said the flashbacks, PTSD reaction to sounds and smells, anger, guilt, shame even the news reports remind them of their experiences. He said all these frustrations are effects that were never understood or even considered, but are the price they each pay for patriotism.
“My experience in Nam gives me a better view of what people faced and face because I was there and I know better, not totally, but I understand better than some what’s in your heart, experiences and mind, and sometimes being able to express that helps,” Williams said. “That is why I am here and do what I do. I try to help families and my fellow patriots, brothers and sisters in arms.”
Williams said, from the bottom of his heart to any vet that served whether in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world including those that stayed stateside to support, “welcome home.”
“You are a true patriot and a great American,” Williams said. That can never be taken from your spirit or soul. You are my heroes. I will never stop fighting for you and the respect you and your families deserve for your service. We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of duty, honor and respect. You deserve a hearty heartfelt, welcome home.”
After Williams’ speech, the Daughters of the American Revolution presented a flag to the oldest Vietnam Veteran, at the age of 89, in the crowd. This was followed by a moment of silence, a 21 Gun Salute, the playing of TAPS and closing remarks by Angela Dawes, MSW Safe Harbor Hospice.
“In closing today, I just want to take this time to thank all of you who have made today what it is and so very special for our Vietnam Veterans,” Dawes said. “We are blessed to be part of a community that supports our Veterans and want to give back in anyway possible.”
Dawes said, those of us who have not served, will never fully understand the sacrifices that Veterans have made both in times of peace and in war.
“We will never fully understand what you were required to do or how you were able to do it,” Dawes said. “We will never fully understand the depths of your scars, but what we can offer you is this. We see you. We recognize your humanity. And we send you love that is gentle, patient and healing. With many blessings and gratitude, we ask that you always remember that you are loved. Thank you for your service and welcome home Veterans.”
Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Democrat News. She can be reached at 573-783-3366 or at firstname.lastname@example.org