Tuesday, April 08, 2014

TOP STORY >> Vets appreciate late thank you in Jacksonville

Leader staff writer

“See that young boy there? He must be what, 13 or 14, and he’s marching in this parade thanking us Vietnam vets. He has no idea why we were there, when we were there or even where we were, but he’s out here welcoming us home. That’s what makes it all worthwhile,” said Gene Collins.

Collins, a Vietnam Navy vet, stood at the curb on Main Street and watched Jacksonville’s third annual “Welcome Home, Vietnam Veterans Day” parade on Saturday.

The parade started on Main Street at First United Methodist Church and traveled westerly to the military museum, where the day culminated with ceremonies dedicated to the veterans and food for everyone.

Collins, who served in the Navy from 1971 to 1977, said the parade was a welcome change from the insults he and other veterans got on their return from Vietnam.

The parade started with the Little Rock Air Force Base honor guard. Not far behind was Vietnam Army veteran Doug Young in uniform and kilt, playing the bagpipes. Various military groups followed, along with beauty queens, girl scouts, cub scouts and renovated military vehicles.

Collins saluted them as they each went by and traded polite barbs with some, chiding some Army vets in the parade by saying “Navy all the way.” It was meant in respectful fun and taken that way. At the end of the parade, he gave a thumbs up to Rolling Thunder, a veteran’s motorcycle group, saying, “Give ‘em hell.

“Back when I was in, two tours in Vietnam was a rarity, but that’s what most of our guys in Afghanistan and Iraq have served, or even more. I feel sorry for them in 20 years if the VA doesn’t get it together right now,” Collins said.

Even though the parade was the shortest one in the three-year history of the salute to veterans, the ceremony at the museum attracted a crowd to hear Mayor Gary Fletcher proclaim Saturday as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” and President Obama’s resolution declaring the next 13 years — the length of the war — as a time to remember and support those veterans.

The parade’s Grand Marshal, retired Army National Guard Col. Mike Ross, agreed. He told the crowd of appreciative residents, active military members, veterans — with canes, in wheelchairs and some being assisted by nurses — at the museum, after the parade’s end, “we got the welcome part down pat now, but not the transition,”

Ross apologized for not being the former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, “I know some of you are saddened that I’m not him, and others are happy.”

On the issues of veterans, he continued, “For Vietnam, we took citizens and turned them into soldiers and then had them go back to being citizens without transitioning them back. We are averaging 23 suicides a day among our veterans.”

Ross added that, back in World War II, about 99 percent of the population was involved in the war. “It affected everyone and all got it. But now only 1 percent of the population is involved. The other 99 percent don’t see the effect and don’t understand the needs of veterans.”

He said the problem is that, even though there are a number of veteran programs, they are not a coordinated, cohesive effort.

Ross told the crowd that it is tough training a soldier and tough fighting, but the toughest battle is when they come back home.

Young, who came down to Jacksonville from Shirley to be in the parade, sat through the ceremony with his bagpipe hugged to his chest.

He was a crew chief on a gunship and spent 26 months in Vietnam. Young had a number of close calls. “A little more to the left or to the right, or five seconds earlier or later and I may not be here today. I was lucky that I didn’t get seriously hurt or killed,” he said.

Young said he knows a lot of vets had a hard time when they came back to unfriendly welcomes, but he didn’t see any of that.

“When my time was up, one day I was in Vietnam and 48 hours later in rural Pulaski County — that was a big enough change right there.”

As far as the bagpipes, that type of music helped him through Vietnam. “I bought some of the records when I was in Australia for R&R and took them back to Vietnam with me. I still have them here somewhere.”

Young picked up playing the bagpipes about seven years ago. He was taught by an instructor in Conway and is part of the Prince Street Pipe Band in Little Rock.

“Everyone’s war was different,” Young said, “depending on what their jobs were and where they were.”

And jobs were something Ross pushed with his words. “We need to help vets at the local level, not with a program to fill out a job application, but with a call saying, ‘I’ve got a vet out here and I want you to hire him,’” he said.