On the 26th of March 2016, in the Seward High School auditorium, a small group of state and local officials and well-wishers participated in a long overdue welcome home for veterans of the Vietnam War. The event sought to honor and remember those veterans and was sponsored by the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in partnership with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States of America Vietnam War 50th Commemorative Organization.
After an introduction by Forrest Powell III, a 24 year Navy Veteran who currently serves as the State of Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs Project Manager, the Color Guard of US Coast Guard Cutter Mustang posted the State and National colors. After the National Anthem and Alaska Flag Song, an invocation was given by Chaplain Vernon Willet of Seward’s own American Legion Post 5.
A POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony was conducted to honor the missing and captured servicemen and woman of current and past wars. The poignant POW/MIA remembrance ceremony was then carried out by the members of American Legion Post 5. A small table was set at the side of the stage symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner alone and isolated against their captors. The tablecloth was white to symbolize the purity of their intentions to respond to their country’s call to arms. A single red rose was displayed as a reminder of the families and loved ones who keep the faith waiting for the return of the lost.
The Legion members lit a single candle to symbolize the unconquerable spirit. A single slice of lemon was placed on the plate to remind all of their bitter fate. Also on the plate was placed salt, a symbol of the tears of the families that continue to wait. The glass is inverted to remind all of those who cannot toast with their comrades, and the chair is empty as a mute reminder to all who are no longer with us.
Seward’s Mayor, Jean Bardarson, welcomed veterans, their families and officials on behalf of all of Seward. A message from Governor Walker was read honoring the veterans.
A short film entitled “Moments of Truth” contrasted the warm welcome home veterans of recent wars have received compared to the Vietnam veteran’s homecomings that ranged from indifference to outright hostility. To those in the audience who served in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan it was with that particularly poignant comparing of personal experiences with those of family members who had served in Vietnam.
The Director of the Office of Veterans Affairs for the State of Alaska, Mr. Verdie A. Bowen Sr., an Air Force Veteran of many Operations including Enduring Freedom, addressed those assembled for the ceremony. He spoke of the shameful treatment our Vietnam veterans received and should never be repeated. He noted how unjustly those who bore the weight of the war were also blamed for the decisions that led to the war and how it was conducted.
As pointed out by several of the speakers, the Vietnam War was different from any other American war, before or since. Not because of 58,151 killed and more than 300,000 wounded, but because it was the first War where combat footage was broadcast into America’s living room. It was also the last time America’s youth faced the draft. Since 9/11, America has grown accustomed to Wars fought by the 2% of the population that volunteers to serve. Still a smaller percentage of that actually serve overseas.
The reality of conscription is far from our current culture. In spite of the pop culture impression to the contrary, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs reports that two-thirds of those in Vietnam were volunteers. This, of course, includes those who knew their draft number were coming up and chose to take charge of their destiny as best they could.
The cost of the Vietnam War touched every corner of the America, including Alaska. Fifty-seven Alaskans paid the ultimate price in Vietnam, including 3 from the Kenai Peninsula.
Alaska has a large and growing veteran population. Based on the last census, there are 73,397 veterans in the state, 17% of its population, which is the highest per capita Veteran population in the nation.
The state also faces a unique problem in providing veteran’s services to its large veteran population, due to the dispersed nature of the Last Frontier. Veteran centers, initially established for Vietnam Veterans, have expanded its services to all Veterans throughout Alaska. Veterans in the Seward Area can get services at the Kenai Veterans Center on Kenai Spur Highway in Kenai.