DES MOINES — Several hundred Iowans gathered Monday at the Iowa Vietnam Memorial near the state Capitol building to honor thousands of soldiers who served during the Vietnam War and the more than 850 Iowans whose names are etched in black granite for giving their lives in service to their country.
“Today, we welcome them all home with honor and gratitude,” said Dan Gannon, chairman of the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs, during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the U.S. involvement in the Indochina conflict.
“It is critical that we not let this 50th commemoration slip by without trying to right that wrong of 50 years ago when America neglected to welcome home our millions of warriors.”
Keynote speaker John Rowan, national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he did not receive a hero’s welcome at the end of his tour of duty.
“I still get a little taken aback when somebody thanks me for my service because I can tell you when I came home a little over 50 years ago, they didn’t even know where I was, never mind welcoming me home. It’s like, oh, hi, where have you been?” he told the assemblage.
“It’s interesting now that we appreciate the service of our military, the politics has been taken out of it,” Rowen said, contrasting the current situation to the emotionally charged days of the war between 1961 and 1975. “The bottom line is you served your country, you’ve come home, let’s see what we can do to help you come back home.”
About 115,000 Iowans served in all branches of the military in Vietnam.
Officials say 869 Iowans became casualties of the fighting; five Iowans earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery.
Overall, more than 58,000 U.S. service members died in the conflict and more than 1,600 remain missing in action.
Rowan said Americans and Vietnam organizations are engaged in a veterans-to-veterans, information-sharing initiative to help locate, identify and repatriate the remains of soldiers killed in battle through the help of DNA testing and other technology.
He called it “a very interesting conversation” when you consider the people at the table may have been shooting at each other 50 years earlier.
“They been able to overcome any animosity they’ve had over all these years,” he said.
Veterans from his era had to deal with the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and fight to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge a problem even existed.
“Agent Orange is now a household word,” he said. “The VA didn’t know what it meant for about 20 years. That was a self-inflicted wound by the federal government.”
Now, he said, Desert Storm veterans are “probably the sickest group” of ex-soldiers “because of all the exposure to toxic things that were flying around over there. Those folks that went over there got exposed significantly, and we are only now starting to figure out what the long-term results of that are going to be.”
During Monday’s ceremony, the 11th annual in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds read a proclamation recognizing Iowa’s Vietnam veterans and telling them “your service and sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
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She also re-signed Senate File 2366, which makes changes to the state veterans’ commission and provides funds for cemetery grand development services and money to assist homelessness and rental housing for veterans.
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