It was a day set aside to honor veterans of the Vietnam War, and their loved ones.
More than 100 veterans of the Vietnam War, and their families, gathered inside the East Pasco Adventist Academy’s gymnasium on June 27 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Veterans at the ceremony received lapel pins acknowledging their service. Tribute was paid, as well, to the 58, 307 service members who died in the war, as well as the 1,167 still considered missing in action.
In his remarks to the audience, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis thanked the veterans for their service and for their sacrifices.
Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th District and is vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said two lessons learned from the controversial Vietnam War continually stand out to him: To leave no one behind and to honor the commitment to support war veterans.
“The members of the armed services who faithfully served with courage and honor were caught in the crossfire of public debate regarding the nation’s involvement, and did not receive the welcome home that they deserved,” Bilirakis said.
“Our veterans are our heroes — not our movie actors, not our athletes and certainly not our politicians; Americans need to continue to thank veterans on a daily basis,” Bilirakis said.
Within the past three years, Bilirakis has introduced two pieces of legislation (COVER Act, PROMISE Act) to help veterans get better access to primary medical care and to address the prevalence of mental health issues amongst veterans.
Estimates show that 22 veterans a day commit suicide, with many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
A survey conducted by the Veterans Administration revealed that some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from the condition.
Rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction are also markedly higher among veterans.
“It’s awful; we must do something about it,” he said about the staggering suicide figures. “Our veterans have sacrificed so much for our country that it is up to us to provide them with the care and benefits they need, and have earned and deserve.”
The congressman said that serving veterans will continue to be his top priority in office.
The ceremony’s featured speaker was U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Art Hibbard, who served in the war from 1968-1969.
Hibbard choked up with tears as he reminisced the moment when all U.S. troops were withdrawn from the war in 1973 and the subsequent negative treatment they received upon arriving in America.
“There were no ticker tape parades, no triumphant marches as it were in the first two World Wars,” Hibbard said. “American Vietnam veterans returned home to silence, or worse,” he said, for having served their country during a controversial war.
Hibbard said he often gets asked about when he served in Vietnam. His response is the same each time: “Man, I was there just last night.”
For Hibbard, not a day goes by where he doesn’t think about his experiences in the Vietnam jungles.
“Every day for the past 40 years,” he said, “I wake up with it. I go to bed with it. I can’t stop thinking about it; I never will.”
The pungent odor of the bloodshed of war still haunts him, too.
“I’ll never forget the way blood smells,” he said. “You didn’t want to make a lot of friends when the possibility of dying is that real; we were in the business of death, and death was with us all the time,” Hibbard said.
Vietnam War (1954-1975)
U.S. Troop Statistics:
8,744,000 – Total number of U.S. Troops that served worldwide during Vietnam
3,403,000 served in Southeast Asia
2,594,000 served in South Vietnam
The total of American servicemen listed as POW/MIA at the end of the war was 2,646.
58,307- Total U.S. Deaths (Average age of 23.1 years old)
1.3 million – Total military deaths for all countries involved
1 million – Total civilian deaths
–Figures compiled by the U.S. Dept. of Defense
Published July 6, 2016