Gov. Sean Parnell put pen to paper last week to officially sign legislation declaring each March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day in Alaska.
The signing ceremony, which took place in the Speaker’s chambers, was crowded with legislators and veterans of the war, some of whom serve in the Legislature.
“This is a welcome home,” said Parnell, his voice cracking. “Welcome.”
Parnell noted the treatment received by Vietnam veterans upon returning to the United States.
“We know Vietnam vets were treated poorly when they returned home,” said Parnell. “But rather than accept that injustice, each Vietnam veteran took an oath, a collective vow that grew into a movement: They decided the way they were treated will never again happen to veterans.”
Pointing to the lack of VA medical clinics in Alaska at that time, Parnell said, “There are now VA clinics in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Kenai and, two years ago, one opened here in Juneau. Alaska’s Vietnam veterans led that charge.”
In addition, veterans centers have opened up where those returning from combat, as well as their families, can receive support.
“You guys led the charge,” said Parnell. “You are the reason those centers exist for our combat veterans today, and I am proud to know each and every one of you. Alaskans thank you for your service and commitment to improving the lives of America’s veterans.”
Pat Russell of Anchor Point recalled the unwelcome environment he returned to when, barely out of his teens, he completed two tours in the U.S. Air Force, one of those in Vietnam.
“Everybody hated me. That’s what we were made to feel,” said Russell. “But I’ve got over it. You can’t hang onto it or it will drive you nuts.”
Of Parnell’s declaration, Russell said, “Hooray. It’s about time they were recognized. (Parnell) really stepped up to the plate. It’s a long time not coming, but he finally did it and I applaud him very much.”
Veteran Lynn Schmidt of Anchor Point also praised the governor’s action.
“It’s a good thing to have a day for us,” said Schmidt, who served in the U.S. Navy between 1964-1973. Two tours were spent aboard submarines off the coast of Vietnam and one tour off the coast of South Korea.
Schmidt recalled whenever they put into a U.S. port, they were only allowed onshore if they had civilian clothes so as not to be identified as in the military.
“It was sad,” he said. “People come back nowadays and everybody’s a hero. It’s changed a lot. I’ll wear my ball cap that says ‘Vietnam Veteran’ and people will say, ‘Thank you for serving.’ But not back then.”
Homer author Marianne Schlegelmilch saw firsthand how attitudes toward Vietnam veterans have changed when, during one of her book signings, she shared details of her husband Bill’s service.
“A couple of years ago at a book signing in Anchorage, when I told an Iraq vet in uniform that Bill was a VN combat vet and some of the details of when and how he served with the A Troop of 101st Airborne, that vet removed the screaming eagles patch of the unit off his uniform and gave it to Bill, who had just arrived to meet me, as a sign of respect,” said Schlegelmilch.
In his comments before the Legislature, Parnell noted how the Vietnam War had challenged the United States.
“It tested our presidents — Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It shaped how our leaders think about engaging the greatest armed forces in the history of the world. It tested our military. It tested our civilians in many different ways,” said Parnell. In closing, he added, “The best way to think of our Vietnam veterans is to remember who you are and the legacy you have left — better treatment for all veterans, freedom for us as a nation, dignity for all of us.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.