HARLINGEN — R. Martinez remembers how his fellow Americans “welcomed” him when he returned home from Vietnam.
“They didn’t want us back,” said Martinez, 72.
He was one of about 140 Vietnam veterans and spouses honored Tuesday at the Harlingen Convention Center for their military service. The event, “A Commemorative Pinning Ceremony 50th Anniversary Vietnam Era,” attracted dignitaries wishing to show their gratitude.
“It’s a lot better now,” Martinez said. “People appreciate more what veterans are doing. It didn’t happen right away.”
Veterans filed past a line of dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell; Harlingen City Commissioner Victor Leal and several others who took turns offering lapel pins to veterans. The pins bore the face of an eagle and the words, “Vietnam War Veteran.” On the back: “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Remembers You.”
“Joe Flores, Manuel Lopez, Emilio Coronado,” said an announcer as he beckoned more veterans to come forward.
“Thank you for your service,” said U.S. Army Brigadier General Gregory P. Chaney to each passing veteran.
“Good morning, sheriff,” several others said to Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence.
Vela spoke frankly about the event’s significance.
“Many of our Vietnam veterans who came back from Vietnam were not welcomed home,” Vela said. “The U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense created this Vietnam War commemorative ceremony.”
Vietnam pinning ceremonies began after the U.S. Congress authorized the commemoration in 2012. It was established under the Secretary of Defense, and President Barack Obama launched the event.
Later, President Donald Trump signed into law the “Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017” designating March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
The recognition was long overdue, said Fred Cavazos, a veterans service officer for DAV Chapter 121.
“They never got a welcome back,” Cavazos said with a smile as he shook Martinez’s hand.
“I think this is a wonderful thing,” Cavazos said. “The community has brought us together in order to honor the Vietnam veterans. It was way overdue. After 50 years they are being recognized.”
Veterans appreciated the gesture.
“It’s an honor to see all the vets here that were there during Vietnam,” Jose Garcia, 75, who served in Vietnam 1967 to 1968.
“I went through the Tet Offensive,” said Garcia. “I survived that.”
Garcia, who was a U.S. Army E-4 in Vietnam, remembers something else, a soldier he rescued one night.
“I saw him get hit by a mortar round about 50 yards away,” he said. “I ran to where he was down and pulled him out of the crater. I had to go get the captain because nobody wanted to come out to assist.”
He never found out what happened to the soldier, whose last name was King. Garcia wondered if King, of Washington state, had even survived. But he didn’t find the man’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Perhaps King has died already, or perhaps he’s at home wondering, “Who saved me?” If he’s alive, at least he’s been recognized just like Garcia and so many others.