Joe Bronis, of Arbutus, was 20 years old and working for General Motors when he was drafted in 1967 during the Vietnam War. Months later, he was deployed to Vietnam, where he served in the Army’s 3rd Squadron, 4th Calvary unit. Bronis was overseas for a year, beginning in January 1968.
Bronis said he felt brushed off by the public — and by the government — when he returned home.
“We didn’t come back as heroes, not that we should have been raised up,” he said. “We didn’t get any acknowledgment for what we did over there. Everybody looked at you like you were a criminal.”
Bronis, now 71, was one of 50 Vietnam veterans who were recognized by the American Legion Dewey Lowman Post 109 on Saturday, Nov. 3, as part of a 13-year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. One woman, a widow of a Vietnam veteran, was also recognized.
About 140 people — veterans, spouses and families — attended the luncheon and memorial, according to organizers.
Sharon Knecht, chairwoman of the Post 109 Auxillary’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Committee, said she was glad to be able to recognize the veterans.
“They’re just so appreciative; their faces just light up,” she said.
And for Knecht, it’s personal. Her fiance, Danny Sterner, died in July 2017 from pancreatic cancer. Knecht said the disease had been connected to exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide that was used during the Vietnam War.
Sterner asked Knecht how he could get a commemorative pin for the 50th anniversary of the war, and Knecht said she found out the only way was to attend a commemoration ceremony.
“He died before he got a pin,” she said. “But that’s what I started it for, because he had asked me to get him one of these pins.”
The Dewey Lowman Post, at 1610 Sulphur Spring Road, has hosted commemoration events for Vietnams veterans in the past, and intends to do another one at the post in early November 2019, Knecht said.
‘Welcome home, brother’
The luncheon featured a bar, fried chicken, music from the Maryland Military Band and remarks by veterans. The keynote speech was delivered by Tom Glenn, now in his 80s, an Ellicott City resident who worked for the National Security Agency in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975.
Glenn was invited so he could tell his story of survival from the fall of Saigon, largely regarded as the event that ended the Vietnam War, when North Vietnamese troops captured the South Vietnamese capital.
Since his return to the United States, Glenn has spoken and written publicly about his experience in Vietnam. The former spy is open about his experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder, though he says he was unable to seek treatment when he first returned home, because it would have put his security clearance at risk.
About one-third of Vietnam veterans experience PTSD in their lifetimes, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We were not welcome when we came home,” Glenn said. “It was a matter of shame.”
When he meets other Vietnam veterans now, Glenn said, he does his part to make them feel appreciated.
At the ceremony in Arbutus, Glenn was able to shake the hand of every veteran who was present to be recognized and hand them a commemorative pin.
As he did, Glenn thanked the veterans for their service and said three words that he said he wished he had heard when he returned to the U.S.: “Welcome home, brother.”
Glenn teared up when he explained why. Even after 50 years, he said it’s important to him that veterans are thanked and recognized.
“I say it to them because they might not have gotten welcomed the first time they came home,” Glenn said.
Bronis, who travels every two years to different locations to reunite with the other men who served in his unit during the war, said he was glad to have been able to attend the ceremony.
He likes to spend time at the legion post, usually getting there about two or three times a week — sometimes just to sit and watch football at the bar with other veterans.
Bronis said he’s glad there are more organizations now that work on veterans’ issues. And he said the national attitude toward Vietnam veterans has shifted from one of disdain to one of recognition and thanks.
“It’s been a long time coming, recognition,” he said.