Vietnam veterans have their day

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 31, 2012

By Hugh Fisher
CONCORD — It was the all-American image of soldiers coming home from war.
Bands. Speeches. Tears of gratitude.
But it took some four decades, and a different America, to show that gratitude to many Vietnam veterans.
Even so, many who attended Saturday’s Vietnam Veterans Homecoming Celebration at Charlotte Motor Speedway said the thanks and recognition were touching.
From the midmorning parachute jump by the U.S. Army Golden Knights, to the music of the Charlie Daniels Band and George Clinton, to the words of welcome from hundreds of volunteers and guests, organizers said the day’s events were designed to bring healing.
For one man who served, De Hillyer, the homecoming celebration brought many emotions, but mostly joy.
Hillyer, a retired United Methodist minister, pastored Rockwell United Methodist Church for six years.
He was a Methodist pastor for 39 years, eight of them in the Salisbury District.
But before that, he had been a U.S. Marine.
And though he left Vietnam behind at the end of his tour in February 1969, Hillyer said only recently has healing begun.
Four years ago, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
During his time in ministry, Hillyer said, there were a lot of issues he only recognized later, including anger and insecurity.
And, he said, the labels he heard applied to himself and many Vietnam vets — “baby killer,” “village-burner,” “psycho” — compounded the hurt.
Saturday, Hillyer said, was a day of healing.
“The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘cathartic,’” he said.
Hillyer’s story will be featured on Monday’s CBS Evening News.
A producer and camera crew followed him Saturday as he and his family saw friends and exhibits.
His wife, Bonnie, said that being with other Vietnam vets was very moving.
“I think this is going to be a long-lasting experience, for their good, for his good,” she said.
Throughout the infield, the garage and the track itself, Vietnam veterans and family members laughed, cried and reminisced.
At a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, many stood solemnly among the names of those who sacrificed their lives.
During the opening ceremony, silence fell as “Taps” played in honor of the fallen.
Moments later, four U.S. Air Force fighter jets roared overhead.
As they crossed the infield, one pulled up into the clouds — the “missing man” formation, symbolizing a fallen warrior.
John Falkenbury, president of the USO of North Carolina, said the event was designed as a way to bring healing and closure.
And he said the turnout had exceeded expectations, with early estimates putting attendance around 80,000.
Falkenbury, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the Heroes’ Homecoming event in Fayetteville last Veterans Day sparked interest in a similar event here.
The USO and the N.C. Association of Broadcasters worked to get the ball rolling, Falkenbury said.
But he acknowledged that the homecoming celebration was long overdue.
“Any Vietnam veteran who said this was too late has earned that right, and I respect that opinion and defend it,” Falkenbury said.
“But I have met numerous veterans today who said this event was like a release.”
Another focus, Falkenbury said, was providing access to information.
While vendors offered food, drinks and games outside, inside the track’s garage were rows of tables full of information on veterans’ benefits, health care and other services.
Salisbury’s Hefner VA Medical Center occupied several tables, with free giveaways and information on benefits enrollment.
Ellen Leonard, a nurse and coordinator of the My Health eVet program, said the homecoming celebration was one of the highlights of her 30 years in nursing.
“It’s just a chance to honor them, to show our vets how much we appreciate what they did for us,” Leonard said.
She said the fellowship and camaraderie were humbling, and she wished she could shake the hands of each veteran there.
Ryan Wagers, chief of chaplains at the Salisbury VA, greeted veterans and handed out New Testaments and “Daily Guideposts” devotional books.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Wagers said.
Wagers and a team of four chaplains meet with veterans in Salisbury, offering support and counseling services.
He said many more had asked for information and appointments Saturday.
Wagers said his love for God and country had been nourished by his father, an Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam era.
“It’s really just a wonderful experience to serve them,” he said.
“I am so thankful that these men and women served, so that I have an opportunity to live in a free country.”
For Bob Grayveen of Sanford, the drive to Concord for the event was worthwhile.
“It’s all heartfelt,” Grayveen said. “I’ve seen some tears, a lot of smiles.”
And, he said, more people had welcomed him home than he could have imagined.
During 1972-73, Grayveen served with the 120th Assault Helicopter Company, 1st Aviation Brigade.
“When we left Saigon, they told us to pack civilian clothes with us,” Grayveen said.
They changed out of their Army uniforms when they arrived in the U.S., to avoid being spotted by protestors waiting for returning soldiers.
Grayveen, who now works in Fayetteville, said the homecoming celebration helped make up for that.
“It’s been a long time coming and it’s greatly appreciated,” he said.
“You just wish the ones who have passed would be able to share this.”
At a press conference, singer Charlie Daniels told reporters that he was ashamed of the mistreatment Vietnam veterans suffered.
“Please believe, you who served, that was not America,” Daniels said.
“America loves you guys, and you deserve just as much honor and glory as America has got to give.”
For his part, Hillyer said Saturday night after leaving the speedway, the homecoming had helped him heal.
It may not have been the same, he said, but it was from the heart.
“I’m good for the rest of my life,” Hillyer said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.