Vietnam Vets Welcomed Home at Norwich University
By Amy ASH Nixon
staff writer | March 31,2014
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Vietnam War veterans proudly wear items indicating service in Southeast Asia duirng a "Welcome Home" event recognizing Vietnam War service members Sunday at Norwich University in Northfield.
NORTHFIELD — When Richard Hamilton took the podium Sunday afternoon at an event held to honor Vermont Vietnam veterans on the 41st anniversary of the end of that war in Southeast Asia, he spoke of his own time as a prisoner in an earlier war. In World War II in 1942, Hamilton’s plane was shot down and he parachuted to the ground and into the enemy’s hands, beginning a 10-month stretch as a prisoner of war.
The elderly Hamilton, helped to the stage by a respectful young Norwich University cadet, is the commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War/Vermont Chapter #1, and his words to the more than 100 Vietnam veterans gathered for the ceremony — along with many friends, family and dignitaries — hit home hard for the veterans, who gave him a standing ovation.
Hamilton spoke of how two mothers during World War II, “formed in their hearts” the idea of an organization to reach out to prisoners of war — their sons among them at the time. The group initially had a different name, but was later changed to make clear the organization was there to help all former prisoners of war who had survived and come home. Its name has changed, but its mission has not, explained Hamilton: “To help those who cannot help themselves.”
After his plane was attacked, Hamilton spent 10 months in enemy hands in Europe, after seeing his plane’s crew die in the accident. “I lost my privilege to view the American flag,” he said softly, in uniform, standing proudly before an American flag as large as a house’s footprint at Norwich University. “Until freedom is fully denied, only then do we realize how important freedom is,” said a man who understands too well what the denial of freedom means — and what Americans like he and the Vietnam veterans gathered were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend and preserve.
To the dozens of Vietnam vets gathered, a number bearing hats showing their branch of service, or vests emblazoned with their veterans’ groups names, Hamilton said his generation had come home to a warm welcome, and he regretted that had not been true for the Vietnam veterans.
“They returned home and were not honored for all they did,” to keep America safe, said Hamilton. “It is my privilege and distinct honor to welcome home all Vietnam veterans,” he said, saluting his fellow comrades.
The crowd was on their feet honoring Hamilton in return.
Commander Hamilton was just one of some 30 speakers on hand for the occasion, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, Gold Star Mother and Vermont State Rep. Vicki Strong, and the heads of veterans groups, representatives of veterans’ services, and representatives of the Vermont congressional delegation.
Norwich University hosted the event with the Vietnam Veterans of America Vermont State Council in the Plumley Armory. The event was the first official statewide welcome home celebration for veterans of the conflict in Southeast Asia, and saw Strong, who lost her son nine years ago in service to the nation, read a proclamation from the Vermont House and Senate to the veterans.
Saturday, March 29, marked the 41st anniversary of the final withdrawal of American combat troops from Vietnam.
The event was among several in the state Sunday honoring Vermonters who served in the Vietnam War.
The proclamation saluted the Vermonters who served in Vietnam, “honoring the memory of those who died in this conflict, and dedicating March 29, 2014 as Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Day in Vermont.”
Gary Herbert, of Woodstock, was among the Vietnam veterans at the event, and was decorated with many symbols on his clothing making his service evident. He joined the Army when he was 18, and served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, he said.
Of Sunday’s event, he said, “It feels like a big thank you, it’s good.” He said he was especially appreciative of the inclusion of so many support service organizations and health and mental health service representatives from the VA Hospital in White River Junction.
A total of 7,332 Vermonters served in Vietnam, and 138 did not come home.
Shumlin told the group it was an honor to be among them. The state, he said, stands behind its veterans in battle and when they come home, he promised, “That’s our job, and every day that you’re on this earth, we’re here to fight for you.”