Scores of Vietnam veterans gathered for events commemorating Vietnam veterans on Thursday.
A National Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Breakfast was organized and hosted by Chapter 1000 of the Vietnam Veterans of America at the Harker Heights Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3892. Later in the day, the Killeen Veterans Center hosted a barbecue to properly welcome the veterans home. Both events offered Vietnam veterans an opportunity to reunite and reflect on the history of the war and veterans-related issues.
The events marked the first official National Vietnam Veterans Day since President Donald Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017. The signing of the legislation coincides with 50th anniversary events across the nation recognizing the service and sacrifice of Vietnam-era military veterans and their families.
The breakfast recognized local military veterans for their service and featured Texas state Rep. Hugh D. Shine, a retired Army colonel, as the guest speaker. Shine’s speech to about 300 veterans and their families was sprinkled with examples of courage of soldiers who served during the conflict.
“During the war, ordinary individuals did extraordinary things,” Shine said.
The purpose of the commemorative breakfast, according to Shine, “is to say welcome home to those who served and thank you for your sacrifice to those who didn’t return.”
According to Acquanetta Pullins, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1000 and a retired Army sergeant first class, the organization and events like this give veterans “comradery, support and information related to military service related disabilities.”
Ret. Command Sgt. Maj. Roosevelt Huggins, of Killeen, was a “Screaming Eagle” during the war. Huggins served with 320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from 1965-1967. He summed up one of the most important issues facing Vietnam-era veterans: “Two words: agent orange.” Agent orange was used during the conflict as a defoliating agent.
“Those C-123s would drop the stuff to get rid of the foliage. Exposure has led some to have respiratory problems, diabetes and prostate cancer. Coming to an event like this, you learn about the process for filing a claim and how time consuming it is.” Huggins said.
According to Killeen/Harker Heights Veterans Center director Kimberly Bayes-Bautista, events like the barbecue at Carl Levin Park in Harker Heights are important. “It’s a chance to say thank you from a grateful nation.”
Former Marine infantryman Phil Sutherland served with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Sutherland, a 16-year veteran, spoke of his experience during the war.
“We were called the walking dead because we had a high casualty rate in Vietnam”, he said.
While Huggins spoke of the physical ramifications of his military service, Sutherland spoke more of the psychological toll. “The things hardest for me was the treatment of soldiers upon returning and wondering if we had an impact.”
Sutherland went back to Vietnam two years ago and said, for him, that the trip was part of how he healed himself after the war.
Sutherland described what he saw all of these years later.
“Vietnam is modern. Looks like we had an impact. I thought they loved us when I returned”, Sutherland concluded.
In Lampasas, veterans who served during the Vietnam War era were presented with certificates and pins by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R–Austin, during a National Vietnam War Veterans Day ceremony at the Old Middle School complex.
Don Nicholas, field representative for Williams, introduced the congressman and said the ceremony was to honor Vietnam veterans.
“On the 29th of March 50 years ago, some of you were standing in the highlands and low valleys of Vietnam doing what you do best,” Nicholas said. “Today we want to recognize you and remember your service during that era.”
Williams expressed his gratitude for their valor and selfless service during an unpopular war and for their sacrifices that benefited all Americans.
“March 29th marks an important day in our country. Today, every American citizen should take the time to honor and give thanks to all our military veterans everywhere,” Williams said. “These veterans and all of you in this room today have made sacrifices that have benefited all of us.”
Williams said the Vietnam War was a period in the country’s history marked by a sharp divide that transformed the United States, but there are those who served because they truly are special.
“You are an elite group worthy of praise and regard everywhere,” Williams said. “This is a day to reflect on how lucky we are to be free and live in America.”
Williams said the United States has experienced many trials and tribulations throughout its history, but remains an exceptional country due to the sacrifices of its military veterans.
“It is because of every one of you, and every veteran who’s given everything they had to preserve the freedom of our great nation,” Williams said. “All the men and women, a minority of the American population, have made sacrifices that benefit us all. You miss holidays, you miss birthdays, you miss funerals and you miss time with your loved ones.”
Williams said these are the stories that aren’t often recounted, and the sacrifices made by men and women in the military expand beyond the dedication of their time in uniform.
“To the Vietnam veterans gathered here today, to you and your fellow soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen, sailors and airmen, (you) have transformed history,” Williams said. “Nearly 60,000 men and women, whose names are forever inscribed on the National Vietnam War Memorial, are a stark reminder of our sacrifices of the members here and around, that you’ve made to preserve the freedoms that we dearly love.”
Williams said the United States military answers the call whenever freedom is challenged and is a global force for good.
“I want to tell every veteran here today, and those not able to be here, we love you, and we thank you for all that you’ve done,” Williams said.
In addition to Williams, Texas House District 54 Rep. Scott Cosper, R-Killeen, and Lampasas Mayor Misti Talbert, were in attendance.
“Everything we appreciate today was provided by these (veterans) and too often we forget that,” Talbert said. “Lampasas loves its veterans and they’re always welcome here, and we will always make sure they get the attention they deserve.”
Williams presented commemoration certificates and a pin to more than 80 veterans or their surviving family members that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. At least 50 Army, 13 Air Force, nine Navy, and two Marine veterans were recognized during the ceremony.
Among the veterans being honored were three siblings. James Banks, Audra Banks and Wayne Banks all served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam war era. A fourth sibling, John Banks, also served during the Vietnam War era but was unable to attend the ceremony.
James Banks joined the U.S. Air Force as a weapons specialist in 1973 and saw combat action during Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, before retiring as a master sergeant in 1993. Audra Banks had two stints in the Air Force beginning in 1974 and served as a jet engine mechanic on the F-4 Phantom and a leadership instructor. Wayne Banks served from 1960 to 1964 and worked as a nuclear weapons specialist during the Cuba Missile Crisis.
The siblings said their father, a career Army soldier, inspired them all to serve in the military, although for different reasons.
“I saw my dad as very hardworking, very dedicated, loved my Mom and was very respectful to people,” said James Banks.
Audra Banks said it was the regimented structure to her father’s means of getting things done that attracted her to the military.
“I liked the discipline; he was always organized, there was always a reason for why things were done, there were no questions and there was no back talk,” Audra Banks said.
Wayne Banks, the eldest sibling, said he had a simple reason for why he enlisted in the military.
“I just needed to get out of the house,” Wayne Banks said. “I have five brothers and sisters and they are all younger than I am.”
The siblings said receiving the recognition for Vietnam War veterans and veterans that served during that era was long overdue.
“I think it’s wonderful, it’s been a long time coming and we are starting to get the recognition little by little,” James Banks said. “Especially being in our hometown makes you feel really good, and having it with my brother and sister is awesome too.”
Audra Banks said she was glad Vietnam veterans were finally getting the recognition they deserved.
“Coming home after going through the things they went through was awful,” Audra Banks said. “They are finally coming back and getting the thank you that a lot of the guys missed.”
They also had words of encouragement for anyone thinking of joining the military.
“Go in, you’ll love it. My son, as an example, was like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ goes in the Army and now has his whole life lined up,” James Banks said. “They need that dedication and discipline that kids are really missing.”
“I liked the military because it gives a young person an opportunity to stretch their wings, be on their own, but have the security of a good job and people who care about you,” Audra Banks said.
Former President Barack Obama declared March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day in 2012. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017” into law, making the date a commemoration of Vietnam veterans every year.