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A Belated ‘Welcome Home’ for Vietnam Vets

More than 40 years later, veterans find healing in events honoring their service

I have to admit that for me — and I daresay for many of my fellow Vietnam veterans — two of the hardest days of the year are Memorial Day and Veterans Day. While much of the country goes overboard for those 48 hours, heaping abundant amounts of praise, gratitude and salutations upon us, we are haunted by the memories of those fellow soldiers and Marines we’ve lost and those who, even after they came back to America, never really made it home.

Maybe that’s why tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their family members from across Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia will gather at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, Md., for Father’s Day weekend 2016 (June 18 and 19). There, a two-day tribute event, dubbed LZ Maryland (LZ stands for Landing Zone in Vietnam parlance), will be held as part of a Vietnam War 50th anniversary observance coordinated by of the U.S. Department of Defense Vietnam War Commemoration.

According to Tom Williams, director of communications with Maryland Public Television (MPT), one of the key organizers of the event, “Those in the Vietnam conflict knew that a Landing Zone was a safe, clear and ready place for helicopters to land without harm. MPT will ensure that LZ Maryland reflects the same safety, securing veterans from the hurt and pain of the past. On June 17-18, MPT will welcome Vietnam vets home and thank them for serving our country.”

Helping Vietnam vets to “get over it” is one of the motivations behind both LZ Maryland and the Department of Defense’s Vietnam War Commemoration.

Getting Over It

It may seem hard to believe, but saying “welcome home” and “thanks” after all these years still means a lot to Vietnam veterans.

I attended a similar welcome home event in Wisconsin back in 2010 (LZ Lambeau, referring to the Green Bay Packers football stadium where the event was held) and was moved by the reception and response. I remember talking to Al Whitaker, a crew chief with the Air Force’s 355th Tactical Air Wing from 1965 to 1969 about why this had taken so long. “The war in Vietnam was bad enough,” said Whitaker, whose father was a member of the famous Tuskegee Airmen (the popular name given a group of African-American military pilots who fought in World War II), choosing his words carefully. “But then we had the government lying to us and the public decrying us as losers and baby killers. I’m not over this yet.”

Helping Vietnam vets to “get over it” is one of the motivations behind both LZ Maryland and the Department of Defense’s Vietnam War Commemoration.

LZ Maryland is in many ways the best of both worlds and will include, among other activities: an honor ride,; a Memorial Chair Ceremony; a Veterans Art Gallery; a Writers Hooch; a 120-by-140-foot “Tour of Duty” map of Southeast Asia assembled so veterans, family members, and other attendees can walk on it, sign it or make other notations plus isplays of Vietnam-era aircraft, vehicles and other artifacts.

Also, there will be lots of live entertainment, something those of us in the rear in Vietnam cherished, featuring, among others, the United States Air Force Band, a Bob Hope-style USO show, The Association, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and The Motortown All-Stars, a group comprised of vocalists drawn from The Capitols, The Miracles and The Temptations.

Never Too Late

That’s some weekend. And, according to MPT’s Williams, their Vietnam veterans initiative is “so broad in scope that it has a much larger footprint in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond.”

Early indications are that Williams is right — Maryland’s Vietnam initiative, nearly four-years in planning, kicked off in late May with the premiere of a three-hour documentary, Maryland Vietnam War Stories. Following the LZ Maryland event, Maryland Public Television will continue its salute to Vietnam Veterans with a traveling exhibit which has already moved across the state of Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area for nearly a year, and will continue to be displayed at regional sites for several months as a prelude to Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary which will air on PBS stations in the fall of 2017.

As a Vietnam veteran, I’m grateful and excited by the prospect of LZ Maryland and all the rest. But I’m probably not the only Vietnam veteran who also wonders if it isn’t all a little too late …

And then I remember the looks on the faces of the more than 70,000 Vietnam vets and family members who attended LZ Lambeau and recall the words of Ken McGinn, who was part of the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta in 1968. “I think the folks who attended (LZ Lambeau) came to understand how hard we fought, how hard we tried, how hard it was to come home,” McGinn told me. “We were good soldiers. I’m sure the LZ Maryland weekend will likewise provide a chance to say ‘welcome home, good job.’ We didn’t get that for more than forty years.”


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