Georgia wants to honor its Vietnam War veterans

The hourlong honor ceremony had just ended when William White, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, burst into tears.

His emotion caught him unexpectedly. It left his wife, Patricia, almost speechless — it was not something she had ever seen him do.

But having his service appreciated was something he wasn’t used to.

“It was terrible when I came back home,” White said, carefully pausing between words to regain his composure. “People spit on me in California and (I got) pushed aside by policemen in California when we came back.”

“There were a lot of people rioting because they didn’t like us,” he added. “I’ve never had this kind of feeling before because I’ve never had the opportunity to be welcomed back home.”

Now he has.

Georgia more than two years ago started an almost quixotic effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, one that in some ways is still just beginning.

It wants each of the state’s 234,000 Vietnam War veterans — such as White — to be handed a certificate of honor in recognition that most never got a personal thank-you when they came home from the war.

So far, about 18,700 certificates have been issued — with state officials vowing to keep crisscrossing the state no matter how long it takes to honor and thank every single veteran eligible to receive one.

“No ma’am, we will not stop,” said Mike Roby, the commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Service. “We’ll do everything we can to make sure that every one of those 234,000 veterans receives their certificate and (a) lapel pin.”

‘Give them the recognition they’re due’

The state’s quest sprang out of a national commemorative program established under the U.S. Department of Defense and launched in 2012, well ahead of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end in 2025.

Georgia officially signed on as part of that program a year after the national launch, and in March 2015 the state Department of Veterans Service, with help from Gov. Nathan Deal, inaugurated the certificate of honor program for Vietnam veterans.

Each certificate, which is often accompanied by a lapel pin from the Defense Department on behalf of a grateful nation, is personalized with the veteran’s name, rank, branch of service and dates of service, a frameable document that is also signed by the governor and Roby.

Both men are veterans and themselves eligible for the honor, having served during the dates recognized by the federal commemorative program as part of the Vietnam War’s arc: June 1, 1954, to May 15, 1975.

Roby, who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army, has a personal motivation: his father and three brothers all served in the military, giving the family 107 years in uniform.

“I loaded up to go to Vietnam but was one of the fortunate ones (when) they said dismount, that the aircraft wasn’t going,” Roby said. “But my father did serve in Vietnam, and so it’s very important that we honor them and give them the recognition they’re due.”

Some 228,000 Georgians served in the Vietnam War, including 29 who are still missing in action.

Even more of these former soldiers now call Georgia home. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that Vietnam veterans who now live here number about 234,000, not including families or veterans’ surviving spouses who are also eligible to be honored.

They are, however, dwindling in numbers. The federal VA estimates more than 500 Vietnam veterans die every day.

So the state veterans department has done what it can to kick-start the program, which in its first year saw more than 7,900 veterans receiving certificates. By the end of August, those numbers had risen to just shy of 19,000.

But there are tens of thousands of veterans still to go.

‘Someone appreciates the things that you did’

To get at them, “we can keep plugging away and keep trying to make a dent,” said Tommy Clack, an eighth-generation Army veteran who lost three limbs in the war and received one of the first certificates handed out in Georgia.

Clack, the president and chairman of the Walk of Heroes Veterans War Memorial in Rockdale County, is among those who have made it their mission to tell others about the program.

“Everywhere I travel I take the form to be filled out” to verify eligibility for the program, Clack said, including during a recent meal at Red Lobster where he ran into a gentleman wearing a hat identifying himself as a Vietnam veteran. Clack handed him the form, and the man said he had no idea what Clack was talking about.

“There are still veterans out there who don’t know about the program,” Clack said. Every Georgia veteran with honorable service during the Vietnam War — whether they served in Southeast Asia or not — is eligible as long as they meet the date requirements.

The ceremonies themselves by necessity are small affairs, held in church basements and posts of local veterans organizations across the state — places where a few dozen people can be economically hosted with the hope that local community news outlets might give a nod for coverage and getting the word out. There’s no fancy marketing plan, nor can the agency afford one.

At one recent ceremony, technical issues with the room’s audio-visual system delayed the program’s start as both veterans and their families settled into several rows of thinly cushioned chairs at the Conyers First United Methodist Church.

The program itself offered a mix of recorded material and short speeches, including a good-natured contest over which military service songs could be sung the loudest.

Some veterans sat by themselves. Others brought families, including grandchildren. Some wore denim overalls. Others came in pressed pants and suit jackets. About 50 veterans in all had signed up to receive their certificates, although not every one of them showed up to accept it.

James Gordon, an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient, barely cracked a smile as agency staff and others took photos, giving the ceremony an air of dignity for what he and others called a recognition of their service.

Several of those honored said they hoped more would be willing to accept the honor.

“It’s not about the certificate or the pin, but it’s about it being said, that someone appreciates the things that you did and the sacrifices that you made,” said White, the Air Force veteran who was 19 when he deployed. “I think it’s important to go through that for closure.”

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