Many Vietnam War veterans would most likely rather forget what they experienced there.
But memories of the praise heaped upon nearly 80 local veterans of that nasty conflict on Friday night in the Waterloo High School gym will hopefully last forever.
Unfortunately, this tribute to some of America’s most valiant soldiers probably came more than three decades too late.
“That’s honestly the first time anyone had recognized us as Vietnam War veterans,” said Ralph Axe, 63, of Waterloo, who served for the Army in the Vietnam War and received three Purple Hearts.
“They did it from the heart. It meant a lot.”
In cooperation with the Waterloo VFW and American Legion posts, Waterloo Park District, City of Waterloo, and Waterloo School District, a special program recognized local Vietnam War veterans.
This followed a Veterans Day tradition over the past couple of years in which World War II, Korean War, and Cold War veterans were recognized.
In front of a large crowd, WHS students performed a handful of dramatic skits and led the audience in singing patriotic numbers in between speeches from various dignitaries including featured speaker Major General William L. Enyart and State Rep. Jerry Costello II (D-Smithton).
During his remarks, Costello said that in contrast to veterans of earlier wars, those returning home from Vietnam weren’t honored with ticker tape parades or other fanfare.
“When they came home, they had their families, themselves and each other,” Costello said.
“We got treated like trash, basically,” confirmed Axe, as he explained the strong anti-war sentiment at that time during a Tuesday visit to the Republic-Times office.
But on Friday night, Vietnam War veterans in attendance were recognized one by one, presented a plaque after having their name, dates of service, and special awards and commendations read over the public address system.
“It was a very nice service,” said Monroe County Sheriff Dan Kelley, a Vietnam vet who served with the Air Force at Binh Tay from 1967 to 1968.
“The first couple of months were fine,” Sheriff Kelley recalls of his service. “Then the Tet Offensive started and all hell broke loose.”
The Vietnam War was a military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from November 1955 through the fall of Saigon in April 1975. This war was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the U.S. and other anti-communist nations.
U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s, with combat units deployed in 1965 and action peaking in 1968. The U.S ended its military involvement there in August 1973.
A total of 58,220 U.S. service members died in the conflict. It marks the last time the Selective Service has been used in the U.S. to draft manpower for military service.
Three local men killed in action — Richard Daughtery, John Guttmann and Robert Holden — were honored Friday night, as well as four veterans who have since passed away: Edward Gibbs, Dennis Kruse, Richard Meier and Perry “Bud” Vogt.
Among the surviving veterans honored were nine Purple Heart recipients, including Axe.
“We didn’t have a choice,” said Axe, who was drafted for the war shortly after graduating from Columbia High School. “We just went.”
Axe, who served as part of the Army’s 25th Infantry in 1968, said he was wounded in the ankle at Tay Ninh, then in the stomach at Dau Tieng, and had finally his knee shattered by mortar fire at Cu Chi.
“That one took me out,” he said. “It was all over after that one.”
Axe said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of all the death and destruction he’d seen there.
“I could bury it deep inside and forget about it for awhile, but that trauma just never really goes away,” he said.
Now retired from Mallinckrodt, Axe said he helps those with substance abuse problems in St. Louis and also visits children with cancer and accident victims at local hospitals, offering the power of prayer.
“It was hard to realize it then, but God had a plan for me,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets, I’ll tell you that.”
Fellow Vietnam veteran Alan Dooley of Waterloo enlisted in 1967 and served with the Navy as a photo reconnaissance systems technician onboard the USS Ranger and later on the USS Blue Ridge.
“Friday night’s ceremony was very, very welcome to me and the large majority of Vietnam vets,” he said. “Our predecessors from World War I and II had victory parades. Most Americans support those who fought in Korea. But Vietnam was an altogether different story. There were no parades.”
But Friday night overcame a lot of those memories, Dooley said.
“I have never asked Americans to love war — but they should respect and love their warriors,” he said. “Friday night they did.”
Another veteran not in attendance for the ceremony, Joseph B. Fortman Jr., was represented by his wife. Fortman served two tours in Vietnam, first as a draftee in 1965 and serving as a medic. After attending Airborne Ranger school at Fort Bragg, he returned to Vietnam for six months in 1971 as a member of the Green Berets.
Copies of a video tribute to all local Vietnam War veterans was unable to be played during Friday’s ceremony, so Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith announced that DVD copies will be distributed to all those honored and the video will be shown on continuous play at City Hall during the Waterloo Merchants Christmas Walk on Nov. 27.
“We are proud of all our veterans in Waterloo,” Mayor Smith said during the ceremony. “We are proud of you.”