BY MARY WICOFF
It was a difficult job — serving in the military during the unpopular Vietnam War. When the men and women returned home, they were ignored, taunted or spit upon.
Forty years later, some local veterans who served in that era basked in words of appreciation and thanks.
“These were the men who served in an unpopular war, and yet they went and served proudly because they knew the importance of freedom,” Harold Fritz of Peoria, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, said during a program Monday. “They went out there with their bellies full of fire, fighting to bring freedom to a people who yearned for it.”
Fritz, a Vietnam veteran, served as emcee at a program marking the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War ceasefire. Dozens of veterans from all eras attended the program at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System.
Students from Tri-Valley Middle School in Downs led the pledge of allegiance, national anthem and provided special entertainment.
The words from people like Fritz hit home for many in the audience. At the local VA, there are 91 inpatients who served in Vietnam.
James Tucker, formerly of Charleston, recalled people’s reaction when he returned home in February 1973 after two and a half years in the Army in Vietnam. “They called me a baby killer,” he said.
He and his fellow veterans were not appreciated, he said, but he knew public opinion would turn around eventually. “It’s good to see the veterans are being thanked,” he said. “I really appreciate that.”
Tucker was in the infantry, was a helicopter door gunner and then crew chief for a general. In December 1972, he was in the helicopter that picked up Henry Kissinger, then assistant to the president for National Security Affairs, in South Vietnam and took him to the peace talks.
Those talks led to the United States and North Vietnam signing the Paris cease-fire agreements on Jan. 27, 1973, ending America’s combat role in the war. The military draft ended then.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, the guest speaker, said he wasn’t there to celebrate the ceasefire.
Instead, he said, “I’m here to say what should have been said 40 years ago — thank you.”
He thanked veterans for putting their lives on the line, and later, contributing to the success of their communities.
“I can’t make up for the disappointment you felt (40 years ago),” he said. “I can make a pledge that never again shall you or any other American veteran be treated the way you were … May you hear nothing but thank you’s the rest of your life.”
All veterans deserve to be remembered for their sacrifices, Eisenhauer said, and he urged all citizens to honor Vietnam veterans who served for the cause of freedom.
Eisenhauer cited several statistics from the war, including more than 58,000 casualties and more than 700 prisoners of war. While those figures are tragic, he said, “Of equal tragedy is the way you were treated when you returned. That was the way we treated the American soldier. That, to me, was the true tragedy of Vietnam.”
Fritz read about 50 names of Vietnam veterans, and those men — many of whom were in the audience — received applause from the audience. “Every American has that spark in their heart to do something for their nation and keep it free for future generations. We’re fortunate to have support of the people and the willingness of people to serve,” he said.
Fritz, president of the Medal of Honor Society, works at the VA outpatient clinic in Peoria as a voluntary service specialist.
Emma Metcalf, director of the Illiana system, also thanked the veterans for their service.
Chaplain Thomas Mills gave the invocation and benediction, asking for peace for the veterans who are still struggling with the after-effects of the war.
July 8, 1959 — First American combat death in Vietnam.
1961 — U.S. military buildup in Vietnam begins.
March 8, 1965 — First U.S. combat troops reach South Vietnam.
July 8, 1969 — President Nixon announces first troop withdrawals from South Vietnam.
Jan. 27, 1973 — Cease-fire agreement signed, ending American combat role.
March 29, 1973 — Last U.C. combat troops leave Vietnam.
April 29, 1975 — Saigon falls; last Americans evacuated; last American combat death.
Nov. 13, 1982 — Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedicated in Washington, D.C.
1988 — Vietnam begins cooperation with United States to resolve fate of American
servicemen missing in action.
April 21, 1991 — United States and Vietnam agree to establish U.S. office in Hanoi to help determine MIAs’ fate.