Tuesday, April 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> A parade 37 years after war

Leader staff writer

Saturday was a picture-perfect day to welcome back home our returning airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines from war.

The problem was it was almost 37 years to the day after the war—the Vietnam War—ended.

The crowd, fewer than organizers had hoped for, still numbered in the hundreds and included dozens of Vietnam-era veterans, who lined Main Street to enjoy the 30-minute parade, which included a Huey helicopter and C-130 flyover.

Larry Biernacki of the Jacksonville Museum of Military History was the parade commentator. He told the crowd that military members returning from Vietnam did not receive a proper welcome, were not recognized as heroes and many were not even accepted back into the community.

“They fought for our country and are heroes,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of scarring, and I truly believe we lost a generation because we never recognized our Vietnam vets. They need to be acknowledged as heroes, and that’s part of what we are trying to do today,” Biernacki said.

For Lendy Lewis and her family, who were holding up a large “Welcome Home” banner, it was a bittersweet acknowledgement. She called her husband, former Jacksonville Alderman Robert Lewis, one of the many “living casualties” who came back from the war.

Lewis died in 2006, two weeks after filing to run for another term as alderman, probably as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while he was in Vietnam in 1963-64.

Even though Lewis served before the war became controversial, the only folks to greet him when he got home was his family.

“There was no big welcome,” Lendy Lewis explained. “Our main concern was that he had orders to North Dakota and we were worried about being able to find housing.”

Lewis and his wife were married for 48 years. They raised six of their own children, including a daughter, who was raped and murdered about 20 years ago. They adopted her two young children and raised them also.

During the parade, Biernacki said the Unites States had 58,000 military members killed in action, including eight women serving as military nurses. The youngest American solider to die in the war was 15 years old. The first American casualty came from Arkansas.

More than 4 million civilians were killed during the war — the equivalent of 12 percent of Vietnam’s population.

Although the U.S. had advisers on the ground as early as 1960, the war didn’t escalate to full-scale status until 1963. It ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on March 30, 1973.

Besides the veterans in the parade, mostly as members of a number of motorcycle clubs, the highlight was the truck pulling a Huey helicopter (the iconic symbol of the war) that will soon be on permanent display at the museum off Main Street.

Grand marshal for the parade was John Steer, who was a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Infantry during the Vietnam War. He was in two of the worst conflicts of the war, the Slopes in June 1967 and Hill 875 in November 1967. He lost his right arm and one of his legs was severely damaged in the Hill 875 battle.

Steer received two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star for his heroic actions in the war.

The Little Rock Air Force Base honor guard opened the parade, followed by the grand marshal and the Sgt. W.K. Singleton Pipes and Drums of Bartlett, Tenn. The band, associated with the Marine Corps’ Det. 476, is named in honor of Sgt. Walter Singleton, a Medal of Honor winner who lost his life in Vietnam.

Other groups in the parade included 13 vehicles from the Arkansas Military Vehicle Preservation Association, eight vehicles from the Ira C. Eaker Chapter of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, the American Legion Post 71 from Cabot, an Arkansas chapter of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group whose main goal is to publicize POW-MIA issues, a float by First Arkansas Bank and Trust saluting those killed in the war and the 20-member Jacksonville High School drum line.

Others in the parade were members of the Kennedy family who have had members fighting in wars from World War I to today, the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club, the David D. Terry Jr. Chapter of the Air Force Association, ABATE District 13 motorcycle Club, members representing the USS Razorback and U.S. submarine veterans, the military museum with its newly acquired Huey helicopter, veterans Fred Divincenzo and John Herald, members of the Teamster Horsemen Motorcycle Association and the 30-member precision marching group from the Beebe High School Air Force Junior ROTC.