Sporting worn leather jackets emblazoned with military patches, Vietnam veterans mingled with active-duty service members during the third annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day Celebration.
The four-hour event, held March 30 at Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt, was hosted by Hospice of the Chesapeake, a nonprofit organization that provides medical care for veterans.
“[This celebration is] a group healing for veterans,” said Susan Walker, a Hospice of the Chesapeake volunteer and co-chair of the We Honor Veterans Committee. “They were not welcomed home, they were not thanked for their service. That left deep wounds.”
In 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan designated March 30 as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day to honor Vietnam veterans throughout the state.
Growing from 800 attendees in 2016, the celebration drew 1,100 veterans and their loved ones, service members and volunteers this year.
Guest speakers included George W. Owings III, secretary of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs; retired Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson; John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens head coach; and former Fort Meade Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Rodwell L. Forbes.
Representatives from local organizations such as American Veterans, Maryland Department of Veteran Affairs and the Military Order of the Purple Heart were present to inform veterans of the services and resources available to them and their families.
As veterans arrived, current service members greeted them at the door, thanked them for their service and welcomed them home.
“It’s pretty humbling [to be here] and it’s a huge honor,” said Spc. Elizabeth Naramore of the 741st Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Meade. “We stand on their shoulders. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”
Naramore, whose grandfather served in World War II, volunteered to be part of the Honor Salute that evening.
“This is long overdue,” she said. “I think I’ll tear up [during the Honor Salute.] It’ll be hard to keep a straight face.”
Attending the event for the first time was Pfc. Tenekeyia McGaskey of the 902nd MI Group, Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment at Fort Meade.
“I think the most humbling experience I had [this evening] was when I walked by a veteran and thanked him for his service,” McGaskey said. “He said, ‘Well, thank you for your service.’ You hear that all the time from civilians, but [these veterans] know what it means.”
Retired Col. Bert Rice, former director of transformation at Fort Meade, served as the emcee and welcomed the audience to the celebratory event.
Rice served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966 and again from 1968 to 1969.
The Vietnam Veterans of America Baltimore Chapter 451 Honor Guard presented the colors.
Donna Stewart-Moore, whose husband served during the Vietnam War and received care from Hospice of Chesapeake, sang the national anthem.
The Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Gospel Choir performed patriotic songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Ben Marcantonio, president and CEO of Hospice of the Chesapeake, spoke about the organization’s continued commitment to provide the best care for veterans who have suffered physically, emotionally and spiritually.
“We’ve learned so much since joining the [Veterans National Movement] and I believe, most importantly, that we are better prepared today to respond to the needs of Vietnam veterans and all the veterans in our state than we ever have been before,” Marcantonio said.
“… I also would like to take a moment to honor those veterans who were unable to make the journey this evening — those veterans who … [are] facing the reality of the end of life and what that means for them and for their families.”
Marcantonio urged the audience to reflect on a fellow veteran, family member or friend who could benefit from compassionate care. He asked for help in changing the meaning of the word “hospice” so those who need assistance feel comfortable seeking it.
Greenbelt Mayor Emmett Jordan then read the city’s proclamation for Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.
Speaking on behalf of a grateful community, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh regaled the audience with personal stories and thanked the Vietnam veterans for their service.
“On behalf of the community, I just want to say thank you,” he said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’ve done. There is no greater call than to serve and defend your fellow citizens. That’s it.
“It’s the most amazing thing you can do for your community and for those of us who haven’t served. We appreciate it.”
Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Brian S. Cullen led the Honor Salute of 150 active-duty service members and Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students.
The first salute was for the Vietnam veterans in attendance, the second salute was for the Vietnam veterans who have died and the third salute was for those who never returned home.
During the second salute, Rice encouraged the audience to think or whisper the names of friends who had served and died.
Forbes, who conducted the Honor Salute in 2015 and 2016, reflected on the impact those ceremonies had on him.
The first year of the celebration, Forbes was struck by the reaction of the active-duty service members during the salute.
“What really caught me off guard was when I watched the service members [walk] out of the auditorium and they were in tears,” he said. “… They said ‘Sergeant major, we never knew that the Vietnam veterans were called baby killers, that they were spit upon, that they could not wear their uniforms back to the United States of America.”
Forbes recalled an encounter with two Vietnam veterans during last year’s celebration.
“I had two people come up to me …. two that I’ll never forget,” Forbes said. “One was a sergeant major and he said, ‘Sergeant major, after your speech I know I can go out to rest because I know we are still in good hands.’ ”
The other conversation would push Forbes to confront a problem he had kept buried for seven years. A Vietnam veteran called him a fool for not utilizing services the military provides to help service members cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Forbes confided to the crowd how that conversation gave him the reality check he needed to seek help. He told the audience that for the past year he has been seeing a psychiatrist.
“She has been continuously pulling back the layers of my life … ,” Forbes said. “I’m not afraid to tell you that I have issues. You know why? Because I know you have issues too. … Honestly, please seek the help that you have fought so valiantly for.”
The ceremony ended with a rendition of “God Bless the USA” by the choir. Audience members rose to their feet and sang along.
For Staff Sgt. Sherman Watts, attending the celebration was an opportunity to meet his comrades in arms.
“It’s great meeting other Vietnam veterans,” said Watts, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. “You don’t know if you’ll meet someone you served with.”
After serving in Vietnam, Watts joined the National Guard and went on to serve a total of 21 years in the military.
“When I first came home from Vietnam, I was not proud to be an American,” he said. “Now, I am.”