BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Don Fern remembers the welcome home he received in 1970, stepping off the plane in Washington, D.C.
Like the other members of the Army’s 9th Division in Vietnam, he’d heard that wearing civilian clothes was advisable, as crowds would be at the airport to protest the war. Since he was guarding the colors – the American and military flags – he was in uniform. As Don and his peers deplaned, they met well-mannered military personnel and news crews, but at the fence line, they could see protesters yelling and spitting, he recalled.
“I pray that never happens to anyone else,” said Don, as he sat with his wife, Therese, in the Whitehouse American Legion’s banquet hall on March 27 – two days before National Vietnam War Veterans Day. “We didn’t get a welcome home, so this means a lot.”
Task Force 20, a nonprofit organization that provides support for veterans, organized a gathering specifically to pay tribute to Vietnam War veterans.
“We felt it’s important to do something more than a social media post. It’s our way of saying thank you,” said Task Force 20 founder Jason Graven, a 1998 Anthony Wayne High School graduate who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11. “We want to recognize the sacrifices that the Vietnam generation made. So many in our generation receive the benefits because of what those Vietnam veterans did.”
These veterans pushed to recognize the role of military service and sacrifice, in spite of a sometimes-hostile reception upon their return home, he explained.
“Vietnam veterans were shamed … but because of them, now all veterans get a welcome home and acknowledgment,” added Therese Fern.
While Veterans Day was established in 1911, it’s only been a few years since Vietnam veterans had their own nationally recognized day. It’s a time to pay tribute to the 9 million Americans who served during the Vietnam War era and to the 58,000 names memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. – and to those who didn’t receive recognition when they returned home from the war.
March 29, 1973 was the day the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam.
“It’s about time,” Marine veteran Harold Savage said about Vietnam Veterans Day, echoing the sentiments of many in the room. Savage served three tours from 1965 to 1969 – one in Okinawa and one aboard a Navy cruiser with a Marine detachment.
“The way we treat Vietnam veterans today is a lot more rewarding,” said Emil Gunther, an Army veteran who sat with his brother Ehrhardt and friends Jim and Gary Kolodziejcyzk.
Emil enlisted in the Army in February 1968 in order to “get it over with” so he could return home and get married. When he stepped off the plane in San Francisco, he could see protestors outside the airport.
While Emil served in Vietnam, his brother Ernhardt was drafted and stationed in Germany for a year. The rules were stricter there and some of his peers volunteered to go to Vietnam instead, Ehrhardt said.
Gary – who was called “alphabet soup” for his long last name – spent his 20th and 21st birthdays in Vietnam. He wrote weekly and sent photos to his family, including Jim, who was too young to be drafted. Armed with a 35mm camera, Gary would take photos of life in Vietnam, sometimes with his feet dangling out of a helicopter.
“If you didn’t write, they’d get on you,” Gary said. “They wanted you to let people back home know what was going on.”
Emil, Ehrhardt and Gary spoke of a 2018 trip aboard Honor Flight from Toledo to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial. It was such an amazing experience that they plan to volunteer when Honor Flight resumes.
Don Fern was on the last Honor Flight in 2019. Seeing nearly 60,000 names on a wall was sobering, he admitted, but the way veterans were treated with honor while parading into Washington, D.C., with a police escort was a complete turnaround from his experience in 1970, he said.
Having an opportunity to talk with other veterans about their experiences is priceless, Graven said. On the “All Call With Task Force 20” podcast, Whitehouse American Legion member and Army veteran Wayne King recently spoke about his service in Vietnam in 1967-69. He also heard stories from veterans of other wars.
“When we talked about this, it brought back memories I hadn’t thought of in years. It sobered me up a bit,” Wayne said.
Wayne’s homecoming in 1969 wasn’t like the others. He recalls his brother picking him up from the Columbus airport. He was wearing his uniform.
“A half-dozen people stopped us to shake my hand and welcome me home,” he said. “I didn’t have the animosity that other people had.”
As he helped set up the banquet hall and greeted guests, Wayne shared a hug with Doug and Karen Mold. Doug was a Navy Seabee from November 1967 to November 1968.
“I was in Vinh Long, which is in the Mekong Delta,” Doug said, referring to an area known for its maze of waterways and swamps. Boats were the main source of transportation.
As veterans shared stories, two men from Your Media People walked around the room to capture footage for a documentary about Graven and Task Force 20. The film will premiere during the Task Force 20 awards banquet on September 8.
In the meantime, Graven and board member Matt Stamm are planning another event in Whitehouse along with the Legion. On Sunday, June 26, Task Force 20 will present Operation: Stronger Together. Held on PTSD Awareness Day, the program will include a race that begins at 10:00 a.m. in Whitehouse Park and includes a veterans’ resource fair with multiple organizations that support veterans. As with the March 27 event, the June program will include food from veteran-owned Warrior Wings of Wauseon.
For more information, visit tf20.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Task Force 20 on Facebook.