CHESTERTOWN — Long overdue, veterans of the Vietnam War era are receiving affirmation of their value as human beings and thanks for their service and sacrifices that was denied them half a century ago.
“When I came home, there were no parties, no parades, maybe a hug from a family member,” Army combat veteran Avon Jones told those who assembled in downtown Chestertown’s Monument Park on March 29 for the local observance of National Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Day.
Jones said it was an honor to be asked to speak and admitted it had taken him three days to put to paper the sentiments he wanted to express.
“Just being here and being able to speak … these memories will live with me for a long time,” he said.
Four combat veterans, including Kent County natives Jones and Emerson Cotton, gave firsthand accounts of their time spent in what Cotton said young inductees were instructed to refer to as Southeast Asia. Paul Showalter, commander of Chestertown’s Frank M. Jarman American Legion Post 36, and Bonnie Hill, regent of Old Kent Chapter-Daughters of the American Revolution, were the other featured speakers.
Showalter said 9 million Americans served in the military in the Vietnam era, and 58,000 names of those killed are memorialized on a monument in the nation’s capital.
He said persistent lobbying by the American Legion has resulted in improved health care and other services for our veterans, but more needs to be done, especially in the area of mental health.
This is the second year that Kent County has observed Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Day. Post 36 and Sumner Hall are the lead organizations. This year, Washington College’s Kappa Sigma fraternity became a partner.
Nationally, this is the sixth edition of the solemn event, which honors all veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during what is considered the Vietnam War era, Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975 — regardless of location.
A statement on the vietnamwar50th.com website states: “We make no distinction between veterans who served in-country, in-theater, or who were stationed elsewhere during the Vietnam War period. All were called to serve and none could self-determine where they would serve.”
The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, signed into law by then-President Donald Trump, designates March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day to thank and honor veterans and their families for their service and sacrifices.
This special day joins six other military-centric annual observances: Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, Navy Day and Veterans Day.
The date of March 29 was chosen to be observed in perpetuity because March 29, 1973, was the day the last U.S. troops left South Vietnam.
Around this same day, Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam, released the last of its acknowledged prisoners of war.
The returning veterans were treated differently — made to feel unwelcome — than service men and women returning from the previous wars or recent deployments.
After 50 years, it was decided that it was a wrong that had to be corrected.
“By being here today, all of you, whether you are veterans, family members, friends or supporters, demonstrate in the most solemn and respectful way, a high regard and enduring respect for all those who have served the nation in uniform,” Chestertown resident Peter Sweetser, who served in the Marine Reserves for six years stateside as a helicopter crew chief, said in his opening remarks.
“You join the millions who have participated in ceremonies like this in a vow never again to confuse personal disapproval of war with prejudice against those who honorably wear the uniform of our armed forces,” said Sweetser, who joined the Corps in 1966.
The ceremony began with a presentation of the colors by the USMC color guard from Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., singing of the national anthem led by Benita Harris, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance led by coat and tie-clad members of Kappa Sigma fraternity and an invocation by the Rev. Denise Jones of Mt. Olive AME Church in Butlertown.
The most compelling words came from those who experienced war firsthand: Jones, Cotton, John Moore and Mark Treanor.
Cotton, who is Black, recounted the racism he experienced traveling in a segregated train to basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga., and the friendships he made from day one on the battlefield with white soldiers.
He acknowledged having “mixed emotions” — proud to have served his country honorably from 1965-67 only to face obstacles in housing and employment upon his return to Kent County.
Ultimately, he said, he “appreciated how the Army made a man out of me.”
Jones said he “wouldn’t wish Vietnam on my worst enemy. It’s something that no one should be exposed to.”
Upon his arrival in-country he learned that his first deployment was to the demilitarization zone — the battleground demarcation separating North and South Vietnam.
“That night I didn’t sleep,” Jones recounted. “I cried in my heart all night long. I just knew that I wasn’t going to get out alive.”
But he did get out alive, physically unharmed but emotionally wounded.
Jones said people would ask him how many people he had killed, but they never asked him how he was doing.
Kent County stayed the same, but he had changed, Jones recalled of his return to civilian life.
He acknowledged that he had come home with a bad habit, drinking, and then picked up other bad habits of which he did not elaborate.
Jones also said it was difficult to get back to the workforce.
He asked the audience to say a special prayer “in your heart” for the Vietnam veterans who did not make it home safely, like his schoolmate Virgil Wilson of Golts, who died in October 1968 at the age of 20.
To all veterans, Jones said, “Welcome home.”
Moore, who now lives near Chestertown, served with the U.S. Army Special Forces. He spoke about how he grew up in Venezuela due to his father’s job and only occasionally came back to the states to visit his grandparents. He said he didn’t feel particularly American and hadn’t been “indoctrinated” in the things that most Americans had.
All that changed in his first 24 hours in Da Nang, what he characterized as a “terrible introduction” to Vietnam.
The first night, Moore said, he was awakened by gunfire and a rifle butt breaking out the screen of his quarters. Then he pulled a mattress on top of himself as protection from an explosion.
The fighting went on for hours.
“There is nothing like seeing the ground strewn with dead Americans to teach you who the indisputable good guys are,” an emotional Moore said. “That morning I became a thorough American and I always will be.”
Treanor, a Naval Academy graduate who served as a Marine Corps infantry and artillery officer from 1968 to 1973, closed out this portion of the ceremony.
After the war, he spent a career as a trial lawyer in corporate life. In 2020, he published his first novel, titled “A Quiet Cadence,” which is the story of a young Marine in combat and his effort to deal with its aftermath over the years since the war.
Treanor opened his remarks by recognizing the unsung service of the family members who supported those in the military.
Speaking directly to the veterans in the audience, Treanor referenced the trauma, triumph and camaraderie of warfare.
“Yet when you came home as young soldiers,” he said, “you were blamed by many in this country for losing the war.”
For decades, Vietnam veterans were unjustly branded as drug addicts, shiftless, useless and, especially hurtful, as baby killers.
“You know the truth,” Treanor told the service men and women in the audience.
“The majority of us simply came home and got on with life — paying taxes, raising a family, making civic contributions to our communities,” he said.
Myths abound, but, according to Treanor, the truth is: 97% of Vietnam veterans were honorably discharged; 85% made a successful transition to civilian life; Vietnam vets had lower unemployment rates than their non-veteran peers; and, according to Treanor, when surveyed, 91% said they were proud to have served their country in difficult times.
“What we all fought for was each other. We were part of a brotherhood and still are. We believed in each other and still do,” he said.
“Thank you and welcome home,” he added.
Hill said DAR members’ fathers, brothers and friends served in Vietnam — including some of her high school classmates and her roommate in nursing school.
She acknowledged that for years too many Vietnam veterans were belittled, ignored or not thanked.
She said the March 29 ceremony was an opportunity to “turn back the page of history, and right a wrong.”
She thanked the veterans for their service and sacrifices, and the sacrifices of their families. And she asked that we remember “those we lost and who did not come home.”
According to the records of the National League of POW/MIA Families, there are four men from Maryland who have connections to Kent County, although they weren’t born here. Also, there are five Gold Star families from this area whose loved ones were killed in Vietnam: Capt. Clarence Matthews Newcomb, 37, of Chestertown; PFC Virgil Henry Wilson Jr., 20, of Golts; Sgt. Carl Joseph Crew, 21, of Betterton; PFC Robert Julian Davis Jr., 20, of Galena; and Spec 4 Raymond Lester Elliott Jr., 20, of Pondtown.
A special pinning ceremony honored the Gold Star families, the spouses of Vietnam War-era veterans who have since died and all who served during the Vietnam War era.
At the conclusion of the pinning ceremony, veterans and their families received a standing ovation — a long delayed thanks of a grateful nation.
Just before the closing prayer, Sweetser asked the community to remember all currently in uniform, veterans of all wars, police, firefighters and first responders who have and do put their lives on the line for us.