For Viet­nam vets, a long-over­due thanks

Mont­gomery County hon­ors res­i­dents who served in the war, many of whom faced hos­til­ity when they re­turned home

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL S. ROSEN­WALD

Forty years, five months and 24 days af­ter the Viet­nam War ended, Mont­gomery County for the first time Satur­day cel­e­brated its res­i­dents who fought, died or were for­ever maimed in the pro­tracted con­flict that di­vided the na­tion.

As many as 200 county Viet­nam vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing five former pris­on­ers or war, were among the 800 peo­ple who lis­tened for two hours as ser­vice mem­bers de­scribed their days of hell and were thanked — ef­fu­sively and mov­ingly, but late — by a long list of politi­cians and other dig­ni­taries at a cam­pus in Rockville.

“It is fair to say to­day’s gath­er­ing is long over­due,” said former CBS News an­chor Bob Schi­ef­fer, who cov­ered the war and was the event’s master of cer­e­monies. “Our pur­pose here is very clear and very sim­ple: to fi­nally say thank you to those who served in that long-ago war.”

An es­ti­mated 140 county res­i­dents lost their lives in the war, which was so di­vi­sive that when those who sur­vived came home they were of­ten treated with hos­til­ity, which was, as Schi­ef­fer put it, “the un­kind­est cut of all.”

Lo­cal of­fi­cials, led by County Coun­cil spokesman Neil Green­berger and em­ploy­ees at the county’s pub­lic ac­cess tele­vi­sion chan­nels, de­cided more than a year ago that it was time to fi­nally honor the county’s 13,000 liv­ing Viet­nam vet­er­ans, tim­ing the event to co­in­cide with the 40th an­niver­sary of the war’s end on April 30, 1975.

Not ev­ery­one was thrilled with the idea. Event or­ga­niz­ers said some vet­er­ans, still wounded by an in­hos­pitable wel­come home, wanted noth­ing to do with be­ing hon­ored af­ter all th­ese years.

But for the vets who showed up — many in Army green coats, biker jack­ets and mil­i­tary para­pher­na­lia — the event marked an­other mo­ment of heal­ing, even if it meant lis­ten­ing to sto­ries of body bags, Dear John let­ters from girl­friends, miss­ing limbs and shot-down planes.

“We sel­dom all get to­gether like this,” said Robert Dono­van, who served in the Navy dur­ing the war and re­mem­bers be­ing booed when he came home. “It’s nice to be able to look into some­one else’s eyes and know that they went through what you went through, that you lost friends the same way, but that life goes on.”

That note was struck by sev­eral speak­ers, in­clud­ing Tom Mur­phy, a Rockville lawyer who de­scribed be­ing at­tacked by a North Viet­namese soldier who popped out from be­hind a tree and fired at him with an AK-47. Mur­phy was wounded, but he killed his at­tacker.

“There is one word, one word that pulls us to­gether: sac­ri­fice, sac­ri­fice,” Mur­phy said. “It is the theme that binds us to each other.”

On a stage with U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), as well as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and sev­eral other elected of­fi­cials, County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah Leggett, who served as an Army cap­tain in Viet­nam, spoke mov­ingly about how “we fought for the rights of those who protested against us.”

In the front row in an au­di­to­rium at the Uni­ver­si­ties at Shady Grove were five former pris­on­ers of war. Leggett rec­og­nized them one by one, with the au­di­ence ris­ing to ap­plaud: re­tired Air Force Col. Fred Cherry of Sil­ver Spring; re­tired Navy Capt. Michael Cronin of North Po­tomac; former Navy civil­ian em­ployee Larry Stark of Bethesda; re­tired Air Force Col. Hu­bert Walker of North Bethesda; and re­tired Navy Cmdr. Everett Al­varez Jr. of Po­tomac.

Al­varez, in­tro­duced as the first Amer­i­can avi­a­tor shot down over Viet­nam, was among the first pris­on­ers at what later be­came known as the Hanoi Hil­ton. He was held cap­tive for more than eight years, a story he re­counted to an au­di­ence so quiet that the only sounds were of peo­ple breath­ing. Some vets wiped tears from their eyes.

“It didn’t take long for us to rec­og­nize that if we were go­ing to sur­vive, we were go­ing to have to stick to­gether,” he said.

He re­mem­bered the way pris­on­ers bathed and took care of one an­other, nurs­ing the wounded. Among them was naval avi­a­tor John McCain, the long­time Repub­li­can sen­a­tor from Ari­zona and a former pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

The pris­on­ers would com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other by tap­ping on the walls. Al­varez re­called Cherry, one of the other POWs hon­ored, be­ing badly in­jured.

“He was in pain,” Al­varez said. “All we could do was tap so he could hear us and keep him strong.”

Al­varez re­mem­bered his re­turn home, too. The pris­on­ers of war, he said, were treated as he­roes, with pa­rades and cel­e­bra­tions. He knows it wasn’t the same for other sol­diers in the room, those treated as the bad guys.

“The truth is just the op­po­site,” he said. “You were the good guys. You were the ones that an­swered the coun­try’s call. You were the ones who signed your name on that blank check for the Amer­i­can peo­ple if you lost your life.” He paused. “It’s been a long time since those days,” he said.

The war­riors, he said, are no longer the ones blamed.

“It is fair to say to­day’s gath­er­ing is long over­due.”

Bob Schi­ef­fer, former CBS News an­chor

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

From left, former POWs Everett Al­varez Jr. of Po­tomac, Fred Cherry of Sil­ver Spring, Michael Cronin of North Po­tomac, Hu­bert Walker of North Bethesda and, partly blocked, Larry Stark of Bethesda.

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