Vietnam Veterans of Carbon County held a ceremony at the American Legion Post 314 to honor Vietnam War veterans on Saturday, at the 40th anniversary of the last shipment out of the war zone.
On March 29, 1973 the last of the U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam were brought home. Upon their return, many were treated as perpetrators of cruelty and violence. These people put their lives on the line to fight for freedom, and their sacrifice went unrecognized for many years. The combination of becoming a pariah, coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the many life threatening conditions associated with defoliants (Agent Orange) left veterans of the Vietnam War in a state of cynicism and distrust of authority.
While some have come to function and thrive in the changing country they returned to, many resorted to substance abuse, some became outlaw bikers and criminals, and others live as reclusive outsiders.
Recognition and appreciation for their sacrifice came almost four decades later in 2012 when President Barack Obama proclaimed that March 29 would henceforth be Vietnam Veterans Day. However, American Legion Post 314 has been holding a memorial ceremony for the past five years.
Before the ceremony began, retired Commander and Master of Ceremonies Harry Wynn recalled the first memorial ceremony that they held.
"About five years ago we felt that it would be a good idea to hold this ceremony. The veterans of Vietnam and those of future conflicts all deserve recognition for the sacrifice of defending their county and fighting for freedom."
The ceremony commenced promptly at noon. Chaplain Daniel Bauer read the invocation and Sgt. Rudy Ballas lead the Pledge of Allegiance. The firing squad and line-up of speakers stood at attention in the biting wind.
Robert Marzen and Richard Fink presented the empty chair tribute to the missing soldiers and prisoners of war, for whom the fight is not over.
"We call your attention to this small table which occupies a place of dignity and honor. It is being set for one, symbolizing the fact that members of our armed forces are missing from our ranks. They are referred to as POWs and MIAs," said Marzen.
Each in turn told of the symbolism of every aspect of the table. This ceremony pays tribute to prisoners of war and missing soldiers for their purity of intention to respond to their nation's call to arms, the frailty of a lonely prisoner, and every sacrifice they made only to suffer a bitter fate. The somber faces of the crowd spoke volumes about the uncertain fate of a lost loved one. To this day there are 1,810 POWs and MIAs who are still unaccounted for.
Following the presentation of the empty chair ritual, Wynn introduced the commander of the Vietnam Veterans Organization, Jay Barry, who spoke of the power of perseverance and the importance of Vietnam Veterans to this nation.
"Vietnam veterans hold a special place in this nation's history," Barry said. "We persevered through a war that we all know was not very popular … When we returned we were called baby killers and war mongers for the very people we sacrificed everything to fight for … What has come out of this? We now honor veterans for their service, and not for where they served. We now honor all veterans' sacrifices and their courage in the line of duty. Vietnam Veterans hold a very special place in our history, because we taught this country the importance of perseverance."
"We hold this ceremony to recognize the dedication of veterans and we honor them today in recognition of their courage and sacrifices," said Henry Desrosiers, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Carbon County.
The speakers that followed each briefly expressed the importance of commemorating the sacrifice of veterans and the courage of their comrades.
However, Lt. Colonel Norman Burger had a more personal story. He recalled a young man he had met during his service at Danang Air Force Base. According to Lt. Colonel Burger and a printout from the AC-119 Gunship Association, on January 27, 1973, eleven hours before the cease fire took effect, Sgt. John Rucker was the last American to have died in the Vietnam War. He died asleep in his bed. He had been assigned to aircraft maintenance, and while he was off-duty, a rocket struck his barracks. Rucker died at 21, no more than three days before he would have gone home.
After he spoke the flags for each branch of the military were raised individually as Henry Long played the appropriate branch anthem on the bugle. Each flew graciously in the cool March wind. Following the raising of the final flag which was raised in silence for POWs and MIAs 13 previous Carbon County residents were honored for making the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the conflict against the Viet Cong.
The ceremony concluded with a rifle salute, the playing of "Taps" by Long, and a closing blessing by Chaplain Bauer. Refreshments were served afterward.