Vietnam veterans honored at Gig Harbor ceremony
Service members returning from an unpopular Vietnam War more often were denigrated than celebrated. A sellout crowd of 350 bestowed belated appreciation upon more than 50 of them during the Gig Harbor Veterans Day Celebration Saturday at Vintage Aero Museum.
“They had no thanks coming home or welcoming parties, so we’re going to correct that today,” said event committee chairman Joe Loya, kicking off an emotional gathering that commemorated 50 years since the U.S. withdrew its military forces.
History of Vietnam War
The United States, fearing that South Vietnam would fall to communists and create a domino effect in Southeast Asia, entered the war in August 1964 after North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked American spy ship USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. By the time President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973, ending direct U.S. involvement in the conflict, 58,220 Americans had died.
The South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell in April 1975. Three months later, North and South Vietnam were unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under communist rule.
About 2.7 million American men and woman served during the nine-year campaign. Fewer than 850,000 of them are alive today, according to Disabled American Veterans. Now mostly in their 70s, 530 Vietnam veterans die every day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.
A 10-minute video Saturday, set to popular war-themed songs of the day, documented the conflict. The Kiwanas‘ Loya cautioned vets they might not want to watch.
“It’s a pretty quiet room out there,” said emcee Greg Copeland, a KING-TV news anchor and Peninsula High graduate, taking the stage after the film. “It’s a little bit heavy to take something in like that on Veterans Day.
“The troops didn’t get a warm welcome home. It was like going from one hostile environment to another. There was no fanfare, no parades. People hid that they were part of the Vietnam War. You don’t see too often people wanting to have anything to do with Vietnam, even after all these years. Hopefully we can remove a little bit of that.”
He asked Vietnam veterans to stand. They received an ovation.
“That’s what it should’ve been like when you came home,” Copeland said, “and it wasn’t, unfortunately.”
In harm’s way
Guest speaker Michael Mitchell graduated from Tacoma’s Stadium High School in 1966, was drafted into the Army in 1967 and fought in Vietnam during 1968-69. The longtime Gig Harbor resident called a young man who he’d met in the parking lot onto the stage.
“Take a good look at Ryan here,” said Mitchell, choking up and unable to speak for a moment. “I can’t imagine putting a young man like this through what all of us went through.”
Mitchell jumped or rappelled from helicopters with the 1st Calvary Division. He underwent 10 days of jungle training. It focused on things like disease and animals in the Vietnamese wild that could take soldiers’ lives.
“After nine days, they told us what else could kill us — the enemy,” he said. “I was in total fear every day, every hour, every minute of being killed.”
Mitchell’s unit flew into dangerous territory on 10 choppers that each dropped seven soldiers.
“I was in harm’s way out in the jungle 321 days. That was our job — find the enemy, kill the enemy, destroy the weapons and hope to survive,” said Mitchell, who serves on the board of Gig Harbor-based Permission To Start Dreaming Foundation. The group provides programs to help veterans restore their lives and overcome trauma they faced while serving.
“I survived. I came home. It was not pleasant. It was a terrible homecoming. I’m not proud of what I did out there, but I’m unbelievably proud of what I survived.”
Shot down twice
Keynote speaker Bill Reeder survived an equally harrowing trial. The Seabeck resident was shot down in each of his two tours. The first time, while piloting a Mohawk reconnaissance plane in the middle of Laos, he got away. The second, while flying a Cobra attack helicopter in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, he wasn’t so fortunate.
On May 9, 1972, while providing support for under-siege South Vietnamese forces at a base called Ben Het, the chopper came under heavy fire. Its tail rotor was shot off and it corkscrewed to the ground, on fire. Reeder suffered a broken back, a shrapnel wound to an ankle and burns, but evaded the enemy for three days.
He was captured and held for weeks in jungle prison camp cages, feet in stocks 24 hours a day except to use the latrine.
“A lot of people died in that camp,” Reeder said. “People died every day.”
The prisoners then endured a grueling 3-month march on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the “Hanoi Hilton.” Seven of the 27 died during the trek. Reeder nearly did, more than once.
Reeder was released on March 27, 1973, after being held captive for nearly 11 months. It wasn’t until he was let go that he learned the fate of Lt. Tim Conry, his co-pilot/gunner when the Cobra was shot down. Conry was rescued but died at the hospital.
“I’ve appreciated and loved every day I’ve had on this Earth since I know how lucky I am to be standing here today,” said Reeder, who retired from the Army as a colonel after nearly 30 years.
Reeder captured the story in his 2016 book “Through The Valley, My Captivity in Vietnam.” He later penned a second remembrance entitled “Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill” about a battle during the 1972 Easter Offensive in the Central Highlands in which he provided air support for 470 overwhelmed South Vietnamese paratroopers. Only 36 survived, along with their badly wounded American advisor.
After Reeder spoke, Copeland asked Vietnam vets to again stand. Cadets from Peninsula School District’s Navy Junior ROTC program delivered American flags and Vietnam veteran lapel pins to those who served in the armed forces between Nov. 1, 1955, and May 15, 1975, regardless of location.
Gig Harbor native Kacey Mason followed with Lee Greenwood’s patriotic standard “God Bless the USA.” Overcome by emotion, she couldn’t finish. The audience picked up where she left off. Singer John Sharrett was similarly affected while narrating the POW/MIA Missing Man Table ceremony.
“It’s hard to be up here and know how you (the vets) sacrificed,” Copeland explained.
Other guest speakers included Colleen Carmichael and Larry Geringer of the Puget Sound Hope Center and Mickey Traugutt of the Permission to Start Dreaming Foundation. Gig Harbor Mayor Traci Markley, Rebecca Sharett of Puget Sound Veterans Band and Tom Lurch of Peninsula Navy Junior ROTC also shared words.
New at the sixth-annual Respect and Remember Our Veterans ceremony was an “in memoriam” slide presentation of veterans who died during the year.
The veterans band played patriotic music intermittently throughout the event, including a sing-along medley and military branch songs. Veterans stood and were recognized during their service’s song. JROTC cadets greeted attendees as they arrived and delivered turkey lunches to their tables. The 201st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade posted and retired the colors.
Veterans Day, held on Nov. 11 to honor the service of all American military veterans, former and current, marks when World War I formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.