For the Vietnam-era veterans honored during a pinning ceremony last week in Port Ludlow, the pin they received is much more than a piece of metal on their chest. It is a physical reminder of something they may not have gotten when they returned from overseas the first time – the enduring gratitude of their nation.
The Nov. 1 ceremony – part of the ongoing 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War – took place at Port Ludlow Fire and Rescue Headquarters No. 31. One by one, more than a dozen veterans were individually honored by Congressman Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who personally pinned a commemorative medallion on each veteran’s chest. All the veterans honored served between Nov. 1, 1955, and May 15, 1975.
The pin was created by the Department of Defense to honor the 7.2 million surviving Vietnam veterans who served. The penny-sized medallion features the image of a bald eagle on the front surrounded by the words “Vietnam War Veteran,” while the backside states, “a grateful nation thanks and honors you.”
“That is why we are here and why I am here … with a humble pin created by the Department of Defense at the direction of Congress, as a way of saying thank you for serving our nation,” Kilmer told the gathered vets. “Thank you for giving your all. Thank you for continuing to make sure that the men and women who currently serve get taken care of and given gratitude sometimes you didn’t receive.”
Ken Burke of Silverdale, an Army veteran who served with the 2nd Armored Division during the Vietnam War, said the pinning ceremony is much appreciated, but more can be done.
He said he doesn’t know if it will ever make up for the hostility Vietnam veterans went through when they returned home.
But, “It is a beautiful thing to see that they are trying to come around,” Burke said. “I think there is really a lot of us that don’t hold anything against” the anti-war movement.
“We are all better for it by just letting it go,” said Burke, who helped organize the ceremony. “You can’t let something like that decide how it is going to set your life in motion.”
More work to do
While gratitude seems not to be in short supply these days, there is much more that can be done to ensure veterans of all eras have access to the benefits they have earned in service to their country, Kilmer said.
“I think we have a lot of work to do, to do better on behalf of our veterans,” he said. “We still have a far-too-high population of homeless veterans. There has been a delay in student veterans receiving their benefits, and that is a real problem. There are still significant challenges within the veterans health administration, and that is something we work on quite a lot — just making sure that people have access to quality health care that they have earned.”
Speaking to the veterans during the ceremony, Kilmer pledged he would do his best on Capitol Hill to be a champion for those who have served their country.
“If you know of folks that may be grappling with the VA, or frankly any other federal agency, give us a holler, and we will go to work,” he said.
Jerry Hamilton of Chimacum, a retired U.S. Navy commander who served from May 1955 to July 1986, said after the ceremony he has seen the attitude toward veterans warm considerably during the last 50 years.
“As they say in the Navy, it’s 180 out – directly opposite,” he said. “You go from 000 to 180. It is just a complete turnaround. It is just hard to believe that it could switch like that. Of course, it is a different generation now. It is really great.”
Col. Jack Cousyn of Port Ludlow, USAF retired, was a fighter pilot who flew F-100 Super Sabres during the war. He said it was an honor to recognized by a congressman.
“It is always a good feeling to see somebody in the political realm who wants to and can understand the sacrifices that military folks go through – whether it is moving your family often or changing schools often,” Cousyn said. “It is really up to our government to support the ex-military. That starts at the top.”
Kilmer said he has taken that message to heart.
“If you serve this country, we’ve got to have your back,” he said. “It means in the land of the free and the home of the brave, every service member should have a home, and it shouldn’t be under a freeway overpass. It means making sure people get the benefits and the health care that they have earned.”