When Vietnam veterans say “welcome home” to one another, it’s an act of remembering — memories of loyalty, selflessness and the cold shoulder the American people gave them on their return from a war the nation did not understand.
On Saturday, “welcome home” finally changed from a slogan of solemn solidarity to one of triumph.
Around 300 veterans, families, military officials and supporters gathered at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen to dedicate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — the first of its kind at a state veterans cemetery in Texas.
The black granite memorial was created by sculptor Troy Kelley, of Salado, and took two years to plan.
Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1000 facilitated the fundraising and donations of time, material, money and talent.
The dedication ceremony highlighted the sacrifices of the young men and women who served in the Vietnam War, a 10-year ground war that cost the lives of approximately 50,000 American soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese troops and civilians.
Upon the conflict’s end by American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, U.S. troops experienced a wave of anti-war fervor and hatred after landing on their home shores.
Eric Brown, the director of the cemetery, said the treatment U.S. troops received after their fighting for their country was inexcusable.
“As a veteran, I can not imagine the feeling of returning home to an unsupportive climate and hostilities from those you raise your right hand to defend,” he said. “Yet I take solace in knowing we have evolved as a nation. Unfortunately this evolution came at a terrible price.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk Sr., the keynote speaker at the event and a troop commander in 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, said the soldiers in Vietnam fought a “young man’s war” that brought them face to face with the enemy — forever changing the men who came back.
“The average combat unit served 240 days in combat situations in Vietnam — in World War II it was 40 days,” Funk said. “A lot of those young people who went there saw a lot of the face of the enemy.”
Funk said the last memory of the war for those who fought in it were the “no man left behind” mentality of the young soldiers.
“The people that fought there, our kids, never backed down and never left anyone behind,” Funk said. “Our guys all knew that we were coming for them, and if you think that doesn’t carry through to this day, you’re wrong.”
Brown said the Veterans Land Board is planning on installing three future Vietnam memorials at state cemeteries in Abilene, Mission and Corpus Christi.
DETAILS OF THE MEMORIAL
The term “Welcome Home” is the headline on the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen.
“That’s a standard greeting now among Vietnam veterans,” said Troy Kelley, describing when a pair of Vietnam veterans shake hands, and say “Welcome home” to each other.
Kelley, a Vietnam veteran, is the Salado sculptor who designed the memorial.
The term “Welcome Home” is not the only feature of the permanent monument that was dedicated Saturday.
“I used images that were unique to Vietnam,” said Kelley, describing the scenes of war near the base of the black-granite monument, which stands 7-feet tall in the center and 4-feet tall at the ends.
The monument includes the different seals of the armed forces, along with an homage to MIAs and POWs — many who never returned.
Perhaps the real highlight of the monument, however, are the dozens of quotes — some signed by the author, some not — from Vietnam veterans in Central Texas and elsewhere.
Kelley reached out to those veterans and asked them to write down a statement about what they wanted to say about the war — something they were not asked when they returned from Vietnam.
“I told them here’s your opportunity,” Kelley said.
“Jesus, my soul is in your hands,” according to the one of the quotes.
Another reads: “Nowhere to run to ... no place to hide.”
Cliff Baldwin, a Vietnam veteran involved with the project, picked out more than a year ago the saying he wanted to go on the memorial: “Dust-off, request urgent medevac, over” — an Army radio call for help and reference to the many soldiers who were wounded and had to be helicoptered out of the battlefield during the war.
The memorial is the first Vietnam War monument in Killeen and in a state veterans cemetery in Texas to honor all Vietnam veterans.