TOGUS — Nearly 200 people gathered at the state’s only veterans’ hospital Tuesday for a ceremony honoring those who served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
The event was one of many held across the country as part of a national effort launched by President Barack Obama in 2012 to commemorate Vietnam veterans and their families. The more than 9 million Americans who served in that war, along with their loved ones back home, never were honored appropriately for their service, Obama said at the time.
“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam — most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there,” Obama said in remarks to veterans that year. “You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor.”
That sentiment was echoed by many who spoke Tuesday at VA Maine Health Care Systems-Togus. The speakers included Gov. Paul LePage, officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and representatives from every member of Maine’s congressional delegation.
LePage mentioned that he was a college student during the war, He called the treatment of veterans on college campuses at the time “shameful.”
“Nobody realized it wasn’t your fault,” he said.
After remarks by LePage, Togus Director Ryan Lilly and others, the Vietnam veterans who attended the event were presented with honorary lapel pins featuring the likeness of a bald eagle and the message, “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You.” They were also treated to slices of a specially made cake on which “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans” was stenciled in green frosting.
The veterans received several long ovations during the ceremony, which was held in a theater on the Togus campus. Banners with the insignias of the various armed forces were hanging from the walls of the venue, and those in attendance wore hats, coats and patches representing their own ranks and distinctions.
According to Lilly, the event was meant to celebrate all men and women who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, even if they did not serve in Vietnam. About 7 million of those who served in those years are still living.
“They really didn’t do this when the war was going on, because it was such an unpopular war and there was so much uncertainty about what going on,” Lilly said of the ceremony.
The Vietnam War stretched from the mid-1950s to 1975, and close to 60,000 Americans died in it, according to the National Archives.
The memories of fighting in it have followed veterans such as Bill Schwarz, a 70-year-old Brewer resident who drove down for the ceremony with his wife, Peg.
Schwarz enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 17 and served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966 and 1968 to 1969, he said.
He and Peg married in the period between his two deployments, Schwarz said, and two fellow Marines who attended their wedding did not survive the second tour. He has post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, and he teared up when recalling the experience.
Schwarz said he appreciated Tuesday’s ceremony. For him, the nicest surprise was remarks by some of the event’s speakers directed at the family members of veterans. He and Peg had a son by the time he left for Vietnam, and he recalled how difficult it was communicating with them.
“The families are the ones that suffered. I’m glad they said something about them,” he said. “The cake was good, too.”
Another veteran, Larry Smith, 69, of Chelsea, said he served as a medic in Da Nang, the Vietnamese city from which many U.S. aircraft left the conflict. He and his fellow medics field-dressed 60 to 120 casualties per day, Smith said, and he, too, counts post-traumatic stress disorder among the results of his service.
Smith, who eventually became a nurse and worked at Togus before retiring in the 1990s, said the more opportunities veterans have to bond with each other and hear they’re not alone, the better.
Both Smith and Schwarz said they felt unappreciated after returning from their service in Vietnam. But according to Smith, events such as Tuesday’s are part of the solution.
“I just think it’s part of the healing process,” Smith said. “Anything that can make veterans feel better about themselves and not feel like discards is a good thing.”
According to Lilly, the Togus director, the ceremony Tuesday was the first of many he hopes will take place around Maine. More than 300 such events took place Tuesday at VA medical centers, regional benefit offices and national cemeteries around the country.
Charles Eichacker — 621-5642