Kevin Howell, who is currently an Allen County councilman, but also an ex-Marine, heads up the committee in charge of the event. He says he came up with the idea to honor Vietnam vets after reading Gen. Colin Powell’s autobiography. In the book, Powell mentioned that he was one of the first 16,000 to be deployed to South Vietnam.
According to an article on the U.S. Department of Defense website, on March 8, 1965, America’s ground war in Vietnam began when 3,500 Marines were deployed with the American public’s support.
The war was fought between North Vietnam, supported by China and other communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries.
By Christmas 1965, nearly 200,000 soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors were in the country. At war’s end on April 30, 1975, nearly 3 million Americans had been on the ground, in the air and on rivers of Vietnam. More than 58,256 Americans lost their lives, 303,700 Americans were wounded and there were 5,011 MIA and 765 POWs.
Howell says after all these years he’s quite sure there has never been a welcome-home celebration exclusively for Vietnam vets and Vietnam-era vets in northeast Indiana, Allen County or Fort Wayne. He says that’s unusual because Indiana is a very conservative state and a very patriotic state.
The three-hour celebration is open to all Vietnam vets and Vietnam-era vets and their families and friends from northeast Indiana, southern Michigan and northwest Ohio.
It will include “Welcome Home” proclamations from various community leaders and government officials such as Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman and Mayor Tom Henry, musical selections, a flyover by the 122nd Fighter Wing, and a keynote address by Phillip Wise.
Wise, a Vietnam vet who was in Operation Babylift, is also author of the book “Fragile Delivery.”
Serving on the VVAHC committee with Howell is Vietnam veteran Bennie Edwards. Edwards, a former command sergeant major, also served for 32 years on the Fort Wayne Police Department.
Edwards spent most of his active service in Vietnam as a Navy crewman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet CVS-12. He says one of the most traumatic things that happened to him during the war was losing his best friend.
The Vietnam war was controversial, and many Vietnam vets were treated harshly upon their return to the states. Some were reportedly spit on and called baby killers in reference to Viet Cong children reportedly killed by American soldiers.
Edwards says he doesn’t recall being treated negatively, but he was asked several times why as a black man he was in the military fighting for the country when there was so much racial tension going on between blacks and whites.
Edwards says his answer was always, “I’m an American first and foremost of African descent. And a person who is not willing to fight does not deserve freedom.”
Edwards says he’s looking forward to seeing his fellow Vietnam vets on Saturday. “It will be like a big reunion.” He says he’s pleased that Vietnam vets are finally getting the welcome home that they deserve.
Another Vietnam veteran serving on the committee is Ralph Garcia. Garcia, a retired Marine who currently lives in Bluffton, served from 1959 to 1969.
Garcia says the one thing he wants vets to take away from this event is an awareness of benefits they’re entitled to. He says Vietnam vets are very much uninformed about their benefits, and that disturbs him. He says not only should they know they’re eligible for benefits, most important, they must apply.
Garcia says, “If they don’t apply, not only will they lose out, their families will lose out, too, and that’s a big thing they don’t realize.”
Howell says he “expects this Vietnam veterans celebration will be very emotional for men, women and their families, lots of pent-up emotions. There will be emotions that vets haven’t felt for a long time, because they’ve never been celebrated.”
Howell personally invites every Vietnam veteran in the tri-state area to come. He says, “This welcome-home celebration is not a gift to you, it’s something you’ve earned.”
To find out more about the Vietnam Veterans of America Homecoming Celebration, go to www.Vietnamvethc.com.