CHANDLER – At a recent dinner held in honor of Vietnam veterans, Bill Messer, who served in an Army signal batallion in the Mekong Delta, mingled with fellow veterans and swapped stories from the war.
It’s a topic that wasn’t always so easily discussed.
“I think the majority of us finally opened up the barriers that we had built around us for 20 or 25 years,” said Messer, president of the Arizona council of Vietnam Veterans of America. “Having this type of an event that was targeted toward Vietnam veterans was, in that respect, a welcome relief.”
Messer said the celebratory atmosphere at the dinner, sponsored by the Arizona Military Museum and state Department of Veteran Services to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. buildup in Vietnam, was much different than the anti-war sentiment to which he and others returned.
“Upon our return home, our welcome was basically non–existent,” he said.
Veterans organizations in Arizona see marking the anniversary of the long conflict as an opportunity to rectify that. Vietnam veterans now make up the largest portion of veterans in the state, and through efforts like the dinner, groups are working to show them gratitude.
“It’s a shame it took 50 years,” Messer said.
To the veterans, the most important part of efforts to recognizing their service is honoring those who didn’t return. Henry Brown, who did three tours in Vietnam as a part of the Army’s air cavalry, said that’s why he attends events like the dinner.
“I’m here to speak for those who can’t,” Brown said.
Mike Lentino, who served in the Army as a door gunner on a Huey helicopter, said it’s important to recognize all who served, especially nurses. He said he was shot down four times, and the field nurses offered comfort and a steady hand.
“They recognized just how unstable we suddenly became,” Lentino said. “We went from feeling immortal to thinking, ‘I damn near got killed.’”
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a four-star general and Vietnam veteran who spoke at the dinner, said those who returned from Vietnam bore the brunt of disapproval aimed at politicians. He said in the context of the current war and other military operations, people are finally showing that appreciation for those who fought in Vietnam.
“The country has remembered what they owe to the people who defend them,” McCaffrey said.
Retired Army Col. Joe Abodeely, a Vietnam veteran and director of the Arizona Military Museum, said while people may be starting to show gratitude for what troops did in Vietnam, many of them don’t know much about the history of the war. He said he is using the museum as a platform to educate people so they understand the sacrifices.
“It’s more than recognition; it’s appreciation,” said Abodeely, who coordinated the dinner.
Beyond honoring and understanding those who served in the Vietnam War, Messer said his organization works to ensure that veterans from that era receive health and education benefits. He said another of their main goals is “a full accounting of our MIAs and POWs,” for which the organization sends scouting groups to the areas around Vietnam.
Messer said above all, efforts to honor Vietnam veterans are intertwined with the idea that no other veterans should have to experience the same rejection.
“Our founding principle is never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” he said.
Whitney Phillips is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.