RICHMOND, Va. — Among the many wreaths laid at the Shrine of Memory at the Virginia War Memorial at its annual Memorial Day service, was one that looked like the Vietnam Service Ribbon in honor of the 1,304 Virginians who lost their life in that conflict.
Veterans of that war were among the hundreds who attended the service. They remembered those who did not come home, as 2023 marks 50 years since the last U.S. troops were evacuated from Vietnam.
"We need to remember the people who didn't come home," said James Whitlow, who was drafted and served between 1968-70 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. "It's not about live veterans today, it's the veterans that never made it back."
"I turned 21 In Vietnam, it was... the whole experience was an awakening. Didn't know what to expect when I went over there. I didn't know what to expect when I came home. It was good for me. I grew up over there," he added. "All in all, it was a good experience for me. If I had to do [it] over again, I'd go."
For him, the biggest change in the 50 years since the U.S. involvement ended, has been how veterans of that war are received.
"When I first came home, it seems like people didn't want to know you're a Vietnam veteran for a long time. Just in the last 20-25 years, I think I've been able to come out and be proud," he said. "People come up to me all the time and thank me for my service. And it means a lot."
Whitlow said he still works to help other veterans returning with Disabled American Veterans.
"Trying to help the veterans coming home today, adjust their lives, so their families can adjust, help them find jobs and all that," he said. "I think that helps to soothe the wounds we felt."
Another veteran at Monday's service was Gregory Davis, who served 18 years with the Marine Corps, then Army. He served two tours in Vietnam, first in 1965 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade as a combat medic.
"You always think about those that made that ultimate sacrifice. We hear it a lot, but you don't understand it until you see young men go into the fire, not stand back," said Davis, who added he served with three Medal of Honor recipients. "Two didn't survive, one survived. That will always be a part of my memory during my Army career. And today, I'm honoring those that gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country and many more are still doing it today."
50 years on, Davis said he has been "very lucky" to enjoy a life and experiences that would not have been possible if not for the men and women who gave their lives in service.
"I don't think we've got a better country anywhere in the world. I've traveled extensively in my career — always came home. This is home and it's going to remain home," he added. "That's why I'm here every year [at the memorial] …Today marks my birthday. I'm 85... So I don't know how many more I have to look forward to. But as long as I'm here, every year I'll be here to honor those that made that ultimate sacrifice for this country."
And while Whitlow and Davis are just two stories, the Virginia War Memorial has an exhibit featuring the stories of 50 Virginia Vietnam veterans to mark the anniversary called "50 Years Beyond".
"We started the project well over a year ago to collect photographs from Vietnam veterans and then take those photographs of them serving in Vietnam and go around and take portraits of them today. So, we can kind of show them then and now," said Memorial Director Clay Mountcastle. "And then really capturing their story was the heart and soul of this exhibit — give them a chance to share their thoughts, feelings, their memories. And we've kind of distilled that into one experience where people can come and learn about the Vietnam War, but not from maps and charts and things but from the veterans themselves."
"The Vietnam War is still a very either misunderstood or controversial war times and so, it's very important to hear from those that participated in it, to get a sense of what it meant to them, how they look back on it now," he added. "We have 50 different stories, 50 different veterans from around the Commonwealth and they all have different perspectives on the war itself, different ideas about what it meant. But, unilaterally across the scope of all 50, they're all very patriotic, they all love this country very deeply, and regardless of their experience during the Vietnam War, they've all truly loved this country."
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