Veterans of conflicts ranging from World War II to the Iraq war filled every seat and spilled onto the surrounding grass at Thursday’s Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial.
Speakers discussed the importance and value of those who have served the United States. Vietnam veterans milled about the area, meeting old comrades and new friends as they talked to men with similar experiences. The ceremony had a particularly important meaning with America currently involved in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Guards from units currently deployed in Iraq presented the nation’s colors to start the ceremonies. The audience consisted primarily of Vietnam veterans who displayed their unit insignias and combat decorations on their clothing. Also in attendance were soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who were recovering from injuries sustained in Iraq.
“(Today) was great. It is always good, it has a healing effect for us combat veterans,” Vietnam veteran Karl Haartz said. “You can’t replace getting together with friends; it has a totally different feeling from every other place we go.”
Haartz was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division, serving in central Vietnam in 1966; he said he has attended the veterans’ ceremony at the memorial for the past 10 years. Haartz, who lives in New Hampshire, joined 50 other members of his division for the one time each year they all get together.
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania was the event’s keynote speaker. Murtha is a former Marine and the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress. He spoke about the lasting memories of those who have served in the military and praised the contributions of today’s troops.
Other speakers reminded those in audience of the sacrifices Americans have made for their country. There was an upbeat mood as veterans compared their time in the service.
“It makes me feel so good to see all the men and women here today,” Major Sheldon Smith said.
Smith, a member of the D.C. National Guard, injured his right arm in a non-combat related injury in Baghdad. Smith contrasted his experiences to those of soldiers from the Vietnam era.
“My reception when I came home was much different then what (Vietnam veterans) experienced,” Smith said.
Smith said he has a deep understanding of the connection between Vietnam veterans and today’s soldiers. As a civilian, Smith worked as the executive director of the Vietnam Women’s Veterans Memorial Foundation.
The Vietnam veterans talked about the importance of being welcomed back into the community regardless of their neighbors’ political views. Because of the poor reception that some Vietnam veterans received, many felt they had a responsibility to ensure a comfortable return for soldiers overseas right now.
“We have sent care packages to combat wounded in hospitals to make sure they have everything they need,” Haartz said. “We (also) have a strong bond with a unit getting ready to go overseas.”
Smith said Vietnam veterans are helping today’s troops cope with the stress of war.
“I think there is a lot they can teach us,” Smith said. “If you have issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, it isn’t going to get better until you deal with it.”
Speakers and attendees attested to the difficulty of dealing with the experience of combat. The Veterans Day event helps heal lasting wounds, Smith and Kaartz said.
“Getting together as a unit helps them,” Smith said. “You will see a brotherhood as total strangers acting as if they have known each other for years. People need that interaction. This is more than a memorial, it’s a healing place.”