A welcome appreciation

Published 8:01 am Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Vietnam War veterans salute a smaller U.S. flag as a large flag hangs from the Atmore Fire Department ladder truck Saturday at the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home ceremony.

Vietnam War veterans salute a smaller U.S. flag as a large flag hangs from the Atmore Fire Department ladder truck Saturday at the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home ceremony.

For many Vietnam War veterans, returning home from the war was not always a happy time. Often they were insulted, ignored or worse, and that was the reason the Ladies Auxiliary of the VFW Post 7016 decided to start “Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Day.”

The second annual Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Day was held Saturday afternoon at Heritage Park, where about 20 Vietnam War veterans were honored and recognized for their service to their country.

“We’d like to thank you today for your service, your dedication and your courage,” said Ginger Stabler, a member of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.

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The ceremony included several keynote speakers, including Escambia County VA representative Mike Hanks, and Alabama State Sen. Greg Albritton.

Ladies Auxiliary member Gayle Johnson explained that the idea for the event came from an experience she had two years ago, when she invited a veteran to join for the free Veterans Day breakfast. She said that he refused to come in, because he was a Vietnam War veteran and “you didn’t want to have anything to do with me then, so why would you want to have anything to do with me now?”

“It’s because of that comment, that we’re here today,” she said. “Respect must first be earned, before it is expected. And I want you to know that you have earned our respect.”

Hanks, himself a Vietnam War veteran, spoke about his plane flight home from combat. He said that he was sitting next to a woman, who quickly alerted a flight attendant that she wished to be moved to another seat because she didn’t “want to sit next to a baby killer.”

“That really hurt me,” Hanks said. “[To the Ladies Auxiliary and other organizers], I cannot describe how much your kindness and words of gratitude mean to us. This program really helps with the healing.”

Ladies Auxiliary member Jenny Hutto introduced Albritton, but also addressed Hanks’ words.

“I wasn’t even born at the time, but I apologize for the way that you were treated when you came home,” she said to Hanks, and the other Vietnam War veterans in attendance.

Albritton said he did not serve in Vietnam, but was a veteran. He related the story of a young man who was serving on the U.S.S. Forestal in 1967, when a rocket accidentally was launched and 134 were killed.

Albritton said the young man was working in a portion of the ship and he and his fellow sailors were badly injured, but they did not once complain or demand to be rescued. Instead, they performed a duty that helped save many other lives, even though it ultimately took their own.

“It used to be that the definition of a veteran was someone who had seen combat,” Albritton said. “Now, it’s used for anyone who has ever served. I would suggest that the definition of a veteran should be anyone who did his or her duty.

“I look upon you veterans, and I still see your young faces. I see those young men and women who did their duty. And I want to tell you, thank you.”

Earlier in the ceremony, Atmore Mayor Jim Staff and city council member Susan Smith read a city proclamation thanking the veterans for their service.

After the speakers, Ladies Auxiliary members handed out gifts to the veterans, as well as hugs and many words of appreciation. They also presented each veteran with a homemade card from students at Bratt Elementary School.