It has been over 50 years since the first American troops landed in Vietnam, and still the veterans of that polarizing war struggle for recognition and acceptance.
But at the Turlock VFW, that fight is non-existent. On a warm Sunday afternoon, veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea gathered to honor the soldiers who never made it home.
About two dozen who did populate the hall were recognized for their duty by the City of Turlock and the U.S.A Vietnam War Commemoration, an organization authorized by Congress, established under the Secretary of Defense, and launched by former President Obama in 2012. It highlights service members and their contributions, pays tribute to wartime help at home, and thanks and honors Vietnam vets and their families.
Master of Ceremonies Rick Kindle, a partner for the Vietnam War Commemoration, delivered a solemn speech meant to invoke the memories of those lost and resurrect them in the present.
“Today we are honoring all vets, especially those who were not properly treated on their return home. Even one who couldn’t get a beer in a bar. That’s pretty bad,” he said. “The Vietnam War was the longest running war in American history.” The audience sat rapt as his voice bellowed throughout the room. “It claimed over 58,000 Americans of all services and ranks, both men and women. California led the rest of the U.S. with 5,572 killed in action…As years pass, we must continue to honor veterans, those who sacrificed everything…to them, we are forever indebted. They died and we survived. We pay them and their families the highest honor.”
He then praised the vets of all past wars, including acknowledgment of Frank Buckles, who served in World War I and died in 2011 at the age of 110.
There are no World War II vets, but at the mention of Korea, two men in the back stood. The crowd clapped; they nodded shyly then sat back down.
After a video tribute to Vietnam veterans narrated by actor Sam Elliott, Admiral Mike Seward, who served in the Coast Guard as a fresh-faced youngster in training during the end of the war, handed out lapel pins to the veterans in attendance.
“Turlock is very appreciative of its veterans. This is reflected in the way we were raised here…The strength of the veterans’ service organizations is because of the Vietnam vets. You are making our organization stronger,” he said.
He offered for those willing to complete an application with the VFW, he would pay their first year’s dues. In closing, he wanted to let the vets know they are appreciated and valued.
“Thanks for stepping out and saying, ‘I’m proud to be a vet.’”
One by one, the honored rose to cheers and shouts of “Oorah!” to receive their pins, smile for Kindle’s wife who snapped shots of them in front of the American and Commemoration flags, and get their certificates from the mayor, the state legislature, and the state legislature assembly.
The nickel sized, gold-colored pin is double-sided. On the front is a fierce eagle’s head flanked by six stars with Vietnam War Veteran printed around the edge. The back proclaims that “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.”
Mike Andersen, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 as a Staff Sergeant in the II Field Force, is one of the men who rightfully received recognition. Kindle mentioned him in his introduction as the vet who went to a bar and couldn’t get a beer.
Andersen remembers that moment without bitterness. He understands where the bartender was coming from now, but at the time he didn’t feel that way. It was June 12, 1968, and he had just landed at the Portland, Oregon airport after his tour in Vietnam. He walked into a bar in full uniform, took a seat, and ordered a beer. The tender turned and pointed to a We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service sign behind the counter. There were too many problems and fights between servicemen and protestors here, he said. Besides, the place was independently owned and they could do as they pleased, however ridiculous the request.
Andersen couldn’t believe it.
He staged his own protest, but soon two sheriff deputies approached and asked him to leave.
He did. He still had two hours before his next plane took off, so he walked outside. It was about 65 degrees, and he was grateful to enjoy the soft cool breeze. In Vietnam, he endured temperatures of 100 and higher, and if that wasn’t enough, there was the “rotting jungle” and the suffocating “smell of burning shit in 50-gallon drums.”
But when he’s around vets, they only like to speak of the funny things that happened. Once, a soldier just in got spooked by a nearby mortar blast, knocking his glasses off. He brushed the dirt off his face, and upon putting them back, the temple tip went up his nose.
Veterans like Andersen deserve to be venerated for their sacrifice regardless of politics or personal beliefs about war, and on Sunday they were.
“When we see Vietnam vets, we say welcome home,” he said. “Because nobody else welcomed us home.”