Hundreds turned out to the Roseburg National Cemetery Annex Thursday afternoon for a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It was a chance for Vietnam veterans to be acknowledged for their service in a way they weren’t when they returned home.
The ceremony included a wreath laying, along with multiple opportunities for the veterans to stand and be applauded.
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman thanked the Vietnam veterans for stepping forward and serving in an unpopular war.
“When our country called, you did not hesitate to do your duty. Your dedication and sacrifice were ignored and belittled by America. The only welcome home many of you received was given by your immediate family or hostile demonstrators,” Freeman said.
“I do not believe America will ever apologize to you properly or ask for forgiveness appropriately for the shameful way you were treated in years past,” he said.
Freeman spoke about the recurring nightmares of a local Vietnam veteran, in which the 400 Viet Cong soldiers he had killed marched silently by as he sat in the bleachers. As time passed, the nightmares changed. The uniforms became frayed and worn, then the bodies decayed, and finally, they were “mere skeletons marching by.” He had received help from the VA for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Freeman said he hoped that like that veteran, the Vietnam veterans at Thursday’s ceremony would feel their mistreatment fade with time.
“I thank each of you for defending an oppressed people, for halting the further spread of communism and for soundly defeating a vicious enemy on the battlefield,” he said.
Michael Johnson, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Umpqua Valley Chapter 805, quoted former President Barack Obama, who in 2012 spoke at the inaugural event in Washington, D.C., that began a 50th anniversary commemoration of Vietnam veterans that will continue through 2025.
“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam, most particularly how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor,” he quoted.
Johnson said it was time to honor the 7.2 million living Vietnam veterans, along with the 9 million families of those who served, the 58,307 who died and whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., whose average age was 23.1 years old, and those who were disabled or missing in action.
“The true cost of war is not measured in dollars and cents, but in lives, neighbors, friends and family who come home with seen and unseen scars that need mending and attentive care, or who do not come home at all,” he said.
He said the families of Vietnam veterans witnessed their loved ones return home to a nation in turmoil. Many received no recognition, no ceremonies, and were encouraged to travel home in civilian clothes.
“We have the opportunity to do what should have been done 50 years ago, welcome our Vietnam veterans home with honor and thank them and their families for their service and sacrifice,” he said.
Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center Interim Director Dave Whitmer said one of the most powerful memorials in the country is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When he lived in Washington, D.C., the wall was the first place he brought family and friends.
Whitmer also quoted from Obama’s 2012 speech, saying “You came home and sometimes were denigrated when you should have been celebrated.”
“It was really a national shame and disgrace that should have never happened, and that’s again why we are here today is to resolve that it will never happen again,” he said.
He said when he thinks of veterans of different eras, the thing that makes him most proud of Vietnam veterans is that “they recognize the fact that they weren’t honored in the right way that we should honor our heroes, and they have done everything they can to make sure that veterans who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have the same treatment.”
“I think we all have to acknowledge that you can love the warrior without necessarily loving the war,” he said.
That’s how things are viewed at the Roseburg VA, where they want to ensure veterans get the great care that they’ve earned, he said.
“This is our chance to welcome them home and to say thanks from a grateful nation. Thank you to our heroes that served during that conflict,” he said.