Vietnam Veterans gather to be honored at the Vietnam Veterans Day Commemoration ceremony held Friday, March 29 at the Veterans Memorial Park of Jackson County. 

Veterans of the Vietnam War honored at ceremony

by Danielle W. Kirkland

As the sun set in the sky behind the Veterans Memorial Park last Friday, a multitude of people gathered around the monument circle to honor veterans of the Vietnam War on National Vietnam Veterans Day — a day set aside to honor those who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time from November 1, 1955, through May 15, 1975. 

As Vietnam veteran Jim Stephens made his way to the circle, he stopped to notice a bench his family dedicated to him at the park. With a smile, he told the story of how his wife, children and grandchildren had surprised him with the gift. Stephens did two tours of duty in Vietnam, serving in the 1st Infantry Division and  the 84th Engineer Battalion. For Stephens, Vietnam Veterans Day is an important occasion to observe. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that (veterans) put their lives on the line in order to protect our country,” Stephens said. “Had we not done that, there’s no telling what would have happened with Vietnam if the Russians had taken over there, and with China being so close by.”

Stephens said when American service members took on the North Vietnamese soldiers that had come south, with the Vietcong already there, it was quite a battle for a few years. 

“I was just part of that, but we lost some good ones over there,” Stephens said. “Some that were in my organization.”

VMPJC President Jim Olyniec opened the ceremony, saying the gathering was meant to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the armed forces members who served the country over fifty years ago. 

“In the jungles and the rice patties, these veterans daily confronted the challenges of war,” Olyniec said. “They returned home to a nation divided, often facing indifference, misunderstanding and even hostility. Many bore not only the physical scars of battle, but also the emotional wounds that remained and continued to remain for over 50 years.”

Olyniec spoke also of the importance of remembering service members who never returned home. 

“The names of these heroes are etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC, and on memorials all across our nation listing the names of their local soldiers,” Olyniec said. “On the honor wall just behind me the names of the (fallen) service members of all wars from Jackson County are a daily reminder of the tragedy of war, and the real price of freedom.”

VMPJC Vice-President Jim Blackburn addressed the crowd, welcoming home Vietnam veterans.

“Thank you for your service and your sacrifices,” Blackburn said. “Some of you may be wondering why are we now, fifty years later, just now welcoming our vets home. Vietnam veterans came back from a war that had become unpopular. They had lost the support of our government and many of our citizens. And as a result, Vietnam veterans were the unsung patriots of a war in a very difficult time in our country.”

Blackburn said most of the men and women who served during the Vietnam War had never even heard of the far off place when they answered the call to serve their country. Still, they fought.

“Bravely, courageously, heroically, honorably, they fought,” Blackburn said. 

Alabama lost 1,208 service members during the era of the Vietnam war. In Jackson County, there were 27 combat veterans who served and died during that time. The average age of the fallen was 22 years old. Blackburn said those who made it back, came home forever changed by war and post war life was difficult for many. 

“They came home without parades, without recognition, without handshakes or any appreciation for their service,” Blackburn said. “So many tried to conceal their military service and their memoirs of war.”

Blackburn said those veterans wanted to ensure that future service members would not have to endure such homecomings, and instead worked so they would  receive the honorable recognition they deserved. 

“Today veterans are welcomed home from the battlefields and they wear signs of their military service proudly,” Blackburn said. “We owe a debt of gratitude to Vietnam veterans. Not only for their honorable service, but for the change of attitudes towards all veterans of all wars.”

Blackburn then asked veterans of the Vietnam War to gather in front of the crowd and receive a long overdue welcome home. The crowd cheered for them, and many shook hands and thanked them for their service all those years ago. 

The ceremony ended at dusk, with Taps playing as the veterans faced the flag and saluted. 

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