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Maryland

Vietnam veterans honored for their service, a half-century later

Of the many images that haunt Stephen Warhol from his yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam, what stands out most are the caskets.

An 18-year-old passenger specialist with the Air Force in 1971, Warhol was tasked with welcoming new arrivals to Da Nang Air Force base near the demilitarized zone and helping those lucky enough to be leaving.

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On a dozen occasions, he had to load onto cargo planes the metal boxes holding the remains of his fellow American soldiers for their final ride home.

"I try never to think about how that felt," he said Tuesday, his eyes filling with tears.

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Warhol, 63, recalled the experiences moments after being honored, along with dozens of his comrades, during a ceremony for Vietnam War veterans at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in Southern Maryland.

He joined a procession of men down a hallway lined with well-wishers cheering, waving U.S. flags, holding up signs of welcome and hollering their thanks.

The veterans, many in wheelchairs or using walkers, then settled into place in an auditorium, where Veterans Administrations officials and other dignitaries offered words of gratitude and brass lapel pins for their service.

The event was one of dozens sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs across the United States on Tuesday as part of a multiyear 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War.

Four years ago, President Barack Obama proclaimed a 13-year program — from Memorial Day 2012 through Veterans Day 2025 — to acknowledge the more than 1 million men and women who served in the American military between Jan. 12, 1962, the date of the first U.S. combat mission against the Viet Cong, and March 29, 1973, when the last U.S. troops left Vietnam.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, authorized the secretary of defense to conduct a program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the conflict. The legislation named March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day.

The federal agencies are teaming with local governments and other organizations to stage more than 5,000 events across the country this year, many on the 29th, others not.

Several were held in Maryland on Tuesday, including wreath-laying ceremonies at Baltimore National Cemetery in Baltimore, a flag-waving event at Veterans Memorial Plaza in downtown Rockville and speeches by veterans at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Easton.

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The commemorations had special resonance for many veterans of the controversial conflict.

By the early 1970s, the war was so unpopular that some Vietnam veterans have said they were greeted not with thanks upon their return but with curses. A few said they were spat on, or called "baby killers."

More common was the kind of story Warhol tells — of coming home and being expected to return to normal life as if nothing had happened.

"You hear about World War II vets and the kind of thanks they received, and they deserved every bit of it, but for all these years, no one ever thanked us," said Warhol, an Alexandria, Va., man who has lived at Charlotte Hall for a year.

He said Tuesday's ceremony was the first official expression of thanks he had ever received — and though he never expected it, it felt good.

"The feelings go deep inside you, like a knife wound, only today, it's like a positive feeling. It's a hard thing to explain," he said.

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More than 58,000 American troops were killed during the Vietnam War, and more than 153,000 were wounded. Some 1,600 Americans taken prisoner remained missing in 2014.

Nearly 130,000 Vietnam veterans lived in Maryland in September 2014, according to the VA.

Many endured prolonged combat. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw 240 days of combat in one year, according to the VA. By comparison, the average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw 40 days of combat in four years.

Obama has said they were denied their just due.

"In one of the war's most profound tragedies, many of these men and women came home to be shunned or neglected — to face treatment unbefitting their courage and a welcome unworthy of their example," he said in the 2012 proclamation announcing the 50th anniversary commemoration.

"Today, we reaffirm one of our most fundamental obligations: to show all who have worn the uniform of the United States the respect and dignity they deserve, and to honor their sacrifice by serving them as well as they served us."

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The Baltimore Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration co-sponsored the Charlotte Hall event with the facility, home to nearly 300 veterans, about 170 of them from the Vietnam era.

Baltimore VA officials read the presidential proclamation, then walked up and down the auditorium aisles to help present the veterans their pins.

Warhol, who has lost both legs to blood clots unrelated to the war, sat in the second row, his blue tie neatly tied, his eyes still red from the day's events.

His heart, he said, was beating nearly as fast as it had decades ago when he worked at the airbase, which the Viet Cong shelled from the nearby hills most nights.

"I'm proud I served, and I'm glad I survived. To this day I grieve for the families of the thousands who did not. And I'm grateful that we're finally getting recognition for what we all did," he said. "I never thought it would happen."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com


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