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
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
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.