John Shearer: Reflecting On Vietnam War While Attending 50th Anniversary Ceremony

  • Friday, March 31, 2023

As I found a spot by a parking meter Wednesday and hustled a couple of blocks down Georgia Avenue as the noon hour had already begun, I initially could not see anyone on the South Lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse.

I at first wondered if the program remembering the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and when the last U.S. combat troops had been pulled out of the country had been canceled or moved inside, despite the sunny weather. But as I approached the steps, I could hear the voice of Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian and emcee Linda Moss Mines and knew the program recognizing Vietnam War Veterans Day locally was indeed taking place.

Once up on the lawn, I quickly noticed 10-20 graying men sitting in chairs near the front, with one or two of them needing pieces of support equipment like oxygen tanks. These were the men I remember in contrast as the strapping young adults who seemed larger than life when I was in elementary school at Bright School in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But I was old enough to realize it was not a fun experience for most of them and that the war and how involved America should be was one of the most hotly debated arguments in this country’s history over the last 75 years. Should we fight the potential spread of communism at every place, including Vietnam, to keep it from possibly moving even closer to our shores, or should we not put American lives at risk dealing with a faraway country’s issues?

Yes, I still remember the horrific fighting, the physical and mental anguish suffered by soldiers, and even the verbal debates at home, when not everyone behaved properly on either side. It all still stands out to me despite the passage of time, and I recall that it was not pretty.

And as a person who never served in the military perhaps due in large part to the fact that my prime age of potential service in the 1980s was when virtually no American conflicts were taking place, I have also debated within myself the pros and cons of such wars. But as the son and grandson of veterans of Worlds Wars II and I, respectively, I have always saluted those who did answer the call to service and did it with grace, honor, and decency.

So, it was amid this personal history that I walked up a couple of minutes late and joined the program and took note of the fact that Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly were both standing there among the audience of about 75-100 people. I did notice the unexpected absence of a lot of local media, perhaps due to the fact the Hamilton County Commission meeting was still taking place inside the historic courthouse in this era of more limited media staff.

Except for a 21-gun salute that would come later, it was a quiet and peaceful setting on the well-manicured and tree-covered lawn – a sharp contrast to what most of the Vietnam War represented abroad and at home.

Ms. Mines in her gathering remarks talked about the various memorable battles and incidents of the war before adding, “More importantly, today we remember the members of our armed forces who served in Vietnam and in support of the Vietnam War, young men and women, who for some of us were our brothers and sisters, our fathers, our high school classmates. They were for whom we prayed daily and sometimes hourly.

“We pause to support those who served with valor, to say a prayer for those who fell and for the ones who loved them to pledge to not forget those who remain unaccounted for and to offer our admiration for those who endured the unimaginable hardships as prisoners of war.”

Mayor Wamp, who spoke after the invocation by Bill Norton of the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council, mentioned that his administration under Charles Alsobrook has seen increases in applications into the Veterans Administration and more contact with veterans in the community. He also mentioned that Veterans Day will be an official day on the calendar for Hamilton County this year.

The mayor also stated that as the son of U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, he had more insight into the impact veterans played as what he called the backbone of the community. He also said he was familiar with the way Vietnam veterans were not as appreciated as veterans of other wars due to the debates about the war.

But he added, “Your generation fundamentally changed the way we think about service abroad, the way we reek with gratefulness for those who have served. That is part of your enduring legacy.”

“We are immensely grateful for you all. In a tremendously dangerous era in our country’s history, you stood between a civilian population and foreign threats. We are tremendously grateful for you all.”

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chip Baker told those gathered that his father served in World War II and that his brother served in Vietnam with less fanfare than during his father’s time. “When my brother came home, he was more silent, and that’s the way it was,” he said.

However, the commissioner praised the veterans as being worthy of salute, adding, “We are indebted to you for your service, and thank you for our freedom and the sacrifices you made.”

Circuit Court Judge Mike Dumitru told a heart-felt story of the fact that while he was not a veteran, he was a first-hand recipient of the democratic opportunities in America. He said his family was able to flee a Communist country (Romania) and come to America, and he is grateful for that.

“As far as the concept of liberty went for my family, they never stood a chance until this country gave them one,” the judge said. “Their opportunities, their successes, their future children and grandchildren came to be an enormous part because of the service and sacrifice of our veterans.

“I am privileged to have the opportunity to stand here today and look you in the eye and say thank you for all you have done.”

Retired Air Force veteran and Chattanooga Area Veterans Council official Wayne Belk, the next speaker, said that he hoped Wednesday’s ceremony would erase the negative reception some veterans received when they returned from Vietnam to a country divided over the war.

“Each veteran is important to this community and with today’s commemoration we hope to help erase the unpleasant moments many of our Vietnam veterans experienced upon their return home more than 50 years ago,” Mr. Belk said. “Today we salute you. Welcome home.”

Retired Navy Capt. Mickey McCamish, the last main speaker, highlighted in several ways the world of the Vietnam veteran 50 years ago with today and said, “Fifty years ago we remember that some Americans turned their backs on us, but we never turned our backs on America…Vietnam veterans, you have earned your place among the greatest generation in America.’

Then came a surprise recognition from the Daughters of the American Revolution Regents Council and Hamilton County Government – the 2023 Hamilton County Patriot Award to the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 203 Honor Guard.

They had been down near the flagpole on the southern end of the courthouse lawn getting ready for the Vietnam veterans flag raising and 21-gun salute and, to their surprise, were told to come up front to receive their award.

As the members seemingly over 70 years old each slowly made their way up, perhaps the most touching moment of the program came when one man, who was apparently a Vietnam veteran as well, shouted to them with pride, “Men, you all are looking good!”

Ms. Mines said they were certainly worthy of the award, adding, “The scores of funerals they serve at each year is so profound to those of us who have seen them perform their duties.”

Tommy Mitchell of the CAVC closed the program out prior to the 21-gun salute with the benediction, and the festivities were followed by a picture of all the veterans in attendance with Mayor Wamp and Mayor Kelly on the courthouse steps afterward.

As I was leaving to walk back to my car a few minutes later, I passed a member of the Honor Guard and, despite my usual shyness, thanked him for all his group does. He was walking slowly as he acknowledged me, but I by then had a giddier step after being inspired from the program.

War is complex, but I felt a simple appreciation for these graying men (and a few women) who in many ways were finally getting their day in the sun, or at least a heartfelt thanks.

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