Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs have been honoring veterans from throughout the sate from different eras, and held a ceremony at Conard High School on Sept. 21, recognizing Vietnam War era veterans from West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
Vietnam War era veterans weren’t always thanked when they returned from service, but Connecticut’s lieutenant governor, together with the Department of Veterans Affairs, has been working to change that, traveling around the state to give those who served the recognition they may have not previously received.
“We are here to say thank you, and to say welcome home because sadly many of you came home not to the parades and celebrations that you saw at the end of World War II, where people danced in the streets and said thank you to those who had served,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said at a ceremony at Conard High School on Sept. 21, attended by 85 of West Hartford’s Vietnam War veterans. Those who served endured some of the most difficult of conditions in the jungle, were exposed to toxic chemicals, and then needed to maintain their resiliency when they returned home, she said.
“We are so grateful that we have the opportunity to honor your service, because you show amazing resilience,” Bysiewicz said.
Ceremonies have been held in towns and cities throughout the state recognizing veterans from different war eras, with Bysiewicz as well as Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Thomas J. Saadi or other representatives from the department participating along with local officials. Last year, West Hartford veterans from the Korean War were honored during a ceremony at Town Hall, and West Hartford is the 40th municipality to now have a celebration for its Vietnam veterans.
“Above all your generation taught us a very important lesson – that no matter what we think about a particular war, we always, always must thank our veterans who served … you answered the call to duty and you served, putting your life at risk for our country,” Bysiewicz said. So many have continued to serve through their careers or volunteer work.
She also noted the more than 58,000 names engraved in the granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, and the 612 from Connecticut who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Mayor Shari Cantor thanked Bysiewicz for making “the incredibly important decision to recognize our veterans. … It is important work to identify and it is a challenging process,” she said. Town Clerk Essie Labrot and Public Relations Specialist Renée McCue were instrumental in tracking down and issuing invitations to West Hartford veterans, Cantor said.
“I just want to again thank the veterans, your families, and all the support systems,” Cantor said. “I know that this is long overdue.”
Members of West Hartford legislative delegation, including state Sen. Derek Slap, state Rep. Tammy Exum, and state Rep. Kate Farrar also spoke to the veterans and their families.
“What you did matters, and what you do matters,” Slap said. “It mattered then, and it matters now. … Your wisdom, your bravery can serve as a model for all of us.”
“I know that it has not always been one that has been recognized,” Exum said of the service and sacrifice by the Vietnam War veterans. She said her uncle served in Vietnam, and died at an early age due to chemical exposure, “but he was so proud of his service to the country and we in turn were as well.”
“Your commitment to freedom, liberty, and democracy is such a model to all of us,” Farrar said.
Farrar sees Vietnam from a unique perspective because her husband was a refugee from Vietnam. “He and his family … were truly welcomed by all of you and so many fellow Americans and have rebuilt their lives in ways that they could not possibly have imagined.”
Before receiving recognition certificates and posing for photos with officials, veterans in attendance had a chance to share their stories publicly. “This is the best part,” Bysiewicz said.
Some were positive about what they had experienced, like Elena DeVaughn, a former lieutenant in the Navy Nurse Corps. She said in her reflection, “I felt in terms of my giving nursing care that it was important to be there, to listen, to comfort, and to do whatever I could. … I feel very proud. I have never had any doubts.”
Rick DiPietro, a former helicopter pilot, said it was a pleasure to be among his fellow veterans. He said, however, when he returned a bartender wouldn’t even serve him a drink. “We weren’t thanked when we came, home, we were spat on … thank you very much, this means something.”
“You come back here and you are not appreciated,” another veteran said, but added he was thankful to receive the recognition in West Hartford and to be with other veterans. “This shows some appreciation,” he said.
Chris Conlin did his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1971-1972, serving with the 198th and 11th Light Infantry Brigades of the Americal Division and later with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. He recalled that the Town of West Hartford brought the soldiers who were serving home to be with their families for Christmas.
Conlin went on to serve with the 76th Army Reserve Unit in West Hartford. Many who went to Vietnam did not survive, Conlin said. “We are the lucky ones.”
Color guards from the West Hartford Police Department, West Hartford Fire Department, and American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 participated in the ceremony, and Boy Scout Troop 146 led the Pledge of Allegiance. Rev. Joseph Rose of St. James’s Episcopal Church gave the invocation and benediction.
The National Anthem and “God Bless America” were bug by Conard students Sirina Garba, Ewan MacKinnon, Kayla Resnisky, and James Thibault.
The entire ceremony, including the stories shared by veterans, can be viewed via the West Hartford Community Interactive recording of the event via the YouTube video below.
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