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Huge crowd of mostly Vietnam vets attends ‘Welcome Home’ luncheon

By Mark Wineka

mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The thanks, the welcome home, the appreciation — all of these things are long overdue for the men and women who fought for the United States during the Vietnam War.

A couple of hours of free food and entertainment doesn’t help compensate for the debt owed Vietnam veterans, but every bit helps heal some of the emotional and physical wounds the men and women still carry with them.

“Our cause was just,” veteran Bill Foley said, walking away from a Vietnam display at a “Welcome Home” celebration held at West End Plaza on Wednesday. “Too bad people didn’t realize it.”

Wednesday’s event, sponsored by Rowan Hospice and Palliative Care and Hospice & Palliative CareCenters in a 13-county region, drew close to 1,000 veterans and their spouses to the former JC Penney store.

Most of the veterans served in Vietnam.

The gathering included a luncheon prepared by Army veteran Thelma Luckey, live music, door prizes, dignitaries, elaborate Vietnam displays and many booths offering connections to organizations that offer help to veterans.

The veterans came from Rowan and outlying counties. Word spread over the past weeks through veterans coffeehouses that have sprung up in the region, including Thelma’s Frontier Coffeehouse every Tuesday morning at West End Plaza.

Serving the veterans’ free lunch Wednesday were 40 local volunteers, many of them members of the Elizabeth Maxwell Steele Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was the DAR that also handled much of the preparation work Tuesday, not quitting until 8:30 p.m.

With help from the Catawba College football team and many others, chapter President Kim Edds said, the women set up and decorated 112 tables. Luckey kept cooking well into the early-morning hours Wednesday.

Organizers knew they would have a crowd when almost 800 people RSVP’d and said they were coming.

Christine Brown of  Rowan Hospice & Palliative Care marveled at how the expected turnout kept growing by the hundreds as Wednesday’s date approached. She described the day as a celebration, a welcome home and a tribute to Vietnam veterans (and veterans as a whole).

One of Brown’s uncles, Arthur Brown, is a Vietnam veteran who was able to attend with the hundreds of others. North Carolina has the third-largest population of veterans in the nation, and information and access to care for veterans are of paramount importance, Brown said.

The most important goal of events such as Wednesday’s, besides welcoming Vietnam veterans home, is to connect them with each other, while also linking them to services they need.

It’s all about relationships, collaboration and partnerships, Brown said.

Jeff Smith, military veterans affairs coordinator for UNC-TV, was part of a crew documenting Wednesday’s luncheon. UNC-TV will air a much-anticipated Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War later this year.

“We really want to make sure we give thanks to the veterans of this state and honor them in any way we can,” Smith said from behind his control panel.

The Vietnam soldier was not always greeted warmly on his return to the United States during the controversial war, in which U.S. involvement ended more than 40 years ago.

“I couldn’t get my husband to talk about it for years,” said a wife who asked not to be identified. “They were treated so horribly when they came back to Los Angeles.”

In the airports, war protesters called the returning soldiers “baby killers” and spit and threw rotten eggs on them.

“Overdue,” the woman’s Navy veteran husband said of the “Welcome Home” luncheon, “but I’m glad they’re doing it.”

Phillip Herlocker of New London flew a helicopter in Vietnam and is part of the N.C. Chapter of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. The association maintains six aircraft often available for exhibits, parades and tours.

“All of these people are blood kin under arms,” Herlocker said, sizing up the big crowd Wednesday. “You wouldn’t believe how many people got killed trying to help a friend.”

Harvey Mayhill, a member of the Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 in South Carolina and also a captain with the South Carolina Patriot Guard Riders, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965.

He missed out on a stint in Vietnam, but one of his personal ways of giving back to those who served and died in Vietnam is to bring his 2012 Can-Am Spyder motorcycle and matching trailer to military-related gatherings.

It’s probably one of the most photographed motorcycles in South Carolina, he said, and it is decorated with plenty of patriotic and religious symbols.

“It takes me 30 minutes to get gas,” Mayhill said of the people who will stop to look and ask  questions.

The bike has been to events across the country. Part of its message is that two defining forces have offered to die for you — Christ for your soul and the American GI for your freedom, Mayhill said.

He parked the handsome bike close to the temporary stage.

Singer Rockie Lynne, a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, performed a song specifically written for Vietnam veterans: “We Want to Thank You.” The Salisbury High School Junior ROTC program presented the colors.

Elsewhere in Salisbury on Wednesday, former Air Force Capt. Ronnie Smith, a combat pilot with the Tactical Air Command in Vietnam, spoke at a Vietnam War commemoration at Salisbury National Cemetery.

Smith announced plans for the erection of a Rowan County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, to be located at the Patriots Flag Concourse at Salisbury City Park.

The local chapter of the Military Officers Association of America is one of the sponsors for the Rowan Vietnam Veterans Wall. Meanwhile, a National Cemetery project in the works could add up to 37 acres to the site.

Smith said a formal announcement of the cemetery’s expansion will come later from the Veterans Administration in Washington.

A wreath was placed during the National Cemetery ceremony in memory of the more than 58,000 U.S. men and women who died in Vietnam.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

 

 

 

 

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