Sunday was a day of remembrance and recognition for veterans of the Vietnam War — for some, a tribute nearly a half-century overdue.
More than 200 people, including Vietnam veterans and their families, gathered in the Smith-Cotton High School’s Heckart Center for the Performing Arts for a program marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war sponsored by the Democrat and organized by Democrat Newsroom Assistant Latisha Koetting.
Koetting, who writes veterans’ histories for the Democrat, told attendees the day was an opportunity to share veterans’ stories first-hand and preserve “what (veterans) witnessed, not only in Vietnam, but also when they got home.”
“What I know about Vietnam I didn’t learn in a history book,” Koetting said. “The things I know I learned from veterans and their families.”
Sunday’s program included ceremonial recognition of the fallen, musical performances, brief histories of the 12 Pettis Countians who lost their lives in the conflict and whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam memorial at the Pettis County Courthouse, and a photo montage from the lives of more than 50 Vietnam veterans from across Central Missouri.
The program also featured remarks by Vietnam veterans Air Force Master Sgt. James “Smitty” Smith, of Smithton; Marine Corps Sgt. Jim Clark, of Sedalia; and Marine Corps Cpl. Gregg Davis, of Cole Camp, who each shared their own recollections of the war and the years that followed.
Smith, who arrived in Vietnam in August 1965, shared the story of the adoption of his daughter, Teresa, from a Vietnamese orphanage. After securing permission to adopt, Smith found himself responsible for his military duties during the day and the raising of a baby while off duty.
He told the audience he had to pay a friend $100 to purchase baby food in the Philippines because he couldn’t purchase it in Vietnam; and of writing to his wife back home to “send me instructions on how to take care of a baby.”
“When you are doing God’s work, he blesses you all along the way,” Smith said of his experience.
After his remarks, Smith was joined by his daughter, who now works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
“I exist because of the Vietnam War,” Teresa said, expressing gratitude for her parents and her adoptive county and quoted President Ronald Reagan in calling the war “a noble cause.”
Clark, who arrived in Vietnam in July 1965, and returned home in May of the following year after being seriously injured by enemy mortar fire, described himself as a “grunt.”
He said there were 97 men on the patrol when he was injured, and once fighting broke out they saw “a 50 percent casualty rate in the first 90 seconds.”
“We were outnumbered three-to-one. By all rights they should have annihilated us,” Clark said.
He encouraged fellow veterans to share and preserve their stories for future generations.
“Each one of you out there have stories to tell — some good, some bad — but they need to be recorded,” Clark said.
Some of the most moving, and pointed, remarks came from Davis, who lost both legs and sustained other injuries after taking a direct hit from a landmine in June 1970.
Blinded by flash and powder burns to his eyes, Davis said he thought he initially thought he had been captured after hearing the voices of Vietnamese nurses in the hospital where he was being treated, and eventually needed men from his unit to help reassure him.
“He said he could feel the extent of his injuries after the blast and thought to himself, “I don’t want to live like this.”
“It wasn’t always an easy road and a lot of the time I had to pull from my gut,” Davis said. “I thank every Vietnam vet I had the privilege to serve with because that is what kept me going and wanting to live.”
Davis was critical of the war’s handling, saying bureaucrats in Washington “thought they could do a better job than our generals.”
“We fought a very good fight and we finished with grace,” Davis said.
He also spoke to the ongoing plight of many veterans who still suffer long-term health issues stemming from exposure to Agent Orange — a defoliant used by the U.S. military to eradicate tree cover — saying he believes “the government is still holding back on what we can expect” regarding the health of exposed veterans.
Davis concluded by thanking Koetting, who received a standing ovation.
“She has done an outstanding job telling our stories,” Davis said. “I thank her so much for this. We would not have had this day if not for her.”