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Saturday’s parade of heroes

I grew up in the shadow of a cousin whose name was spoken of in whispers, with every mention punctuated by a reverential hush. His was a hard history, though, and I was a lazy student. Decades would pass before I had an interest — an appreciation — for his story.  But when he smiled at me from sepia-toned photographs, I admit I found the family resemblance undeniable. Those ears. Wow. Just like my dad’s.

These days his image looms large on muraled walls down at the local VFW, and his name (my hard-to-spell maiden one) is immortalized on their T-shirts and placards. A string of funerals has left my parents lonely under the “E”s in the phone book. As a result, they field the inevitable calls from North Dakota and Rhode Island inquiring about “Danny D. Entrican” POW/MIA bracelets from the ’70s. My parents do their best to answer questions, but the questions remain, and they’re not only about MIAs like my cousin. What about all the others who went to Vietnam? What’s become of them?

Saturday’s shindig down at Post 2618 gives us some insight.

A clarion call went out for Vietnam vets, and more than 30 came — wearing helmets and riding trikes, grasping walking canes and rolling in wheelchairs. My favorite part was the parade of heroes coming through the door, one by one. Some hung their heads in response to the standing ovation. Others smiled and waved. All the while, Daughter No. 2 was zooming in on her Nikon, each frame worth a thousand words.

Because words, it seems, don’t come easy for these guys. This was confirmed by local war-story chronicler Jack Rutland as he stood beside a tent set up for the outdoor meal. Referring to veterans he’s encouraged to speak on his radio program, he explained “they often say to this day they cannot talk about their experiences in Vietnam.”

That’s one reason VFW leaders planned the event, part of an ongoing national commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary. Feted with grilled burgers and cherry-topped cheesecake, the vets received what Post Commander Greg Marlow described as a long-overdue welcome home. “There’s no way to make up for past disrespect shown to Vietnam vets,” he told me. “This is just a way of trying to say thank you for what they did.” 

One of those on the receiving end of those thanks was Robert “Bear” Wallace, 67, of Summit. He went to Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine and “saw things a young man shouldn’t see.” In halting phrases, he said Saturday’s goodwill was the opposite of what he experienced when he returned home from Vietnam: “Back then, they threw garbage on me, called me ‘baby killer.’ A neighbor girl leaned down from her horse and spit on me. That day I went home and burned all my uniforms, because I didn’t want anybody to know I was in Vietnam.”

Lee Perry, a former VFW state commander, provided further understanding in his keynote speech. Addressing his “brothers in blood,” he acknowledged that in 1962, “when things were heating up,” his choices weren’t good. “We could go to Canada, or we could go to jail,” the 75-year-old told the crowd. “And by the way, when someone’s shooting at you, it’s not a conflict. It’s a war.” 

Perry went on to detail his homecoming at a San Francisco air base. “We were unaware of the demonstrations before that. When I saw the screen wire on the bus windows, I couldn’t figure it out.”

The crowd Saturday was a mix. “Eight politicians,” my husband pointed out, noting two congressional hopefuls. And while a preschooler on a back row found it necessary to watch a Pixar flick on an iPhone, for the most part, most of us were engaged in this business of honoring. How could we not be, with “Mad Dog” Mattis looking down at us from the wall, and that vet on the front row struggling to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance?

As temps outside crept near 90, the whir of an air conditioner threatened to drown out the finale — roll call and presentations of the hardback commemorative book, “A Time to Honor” — but it didn’t. Individuals stood. Smiled. Received. Healing, after all, was Saturday’s focus.

“It’s good to know that people care, even 50 years later,” Perry told me afterwards, his voice strong above the din of conversation and laughter. “And vets benefit when they can talk to others like themselves. If you haven’t been to Vietnam, you don’t know. Or any combat era. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know.”

Column by Kim Henderson