He stood up in front of them all – atop the stage and having just completed his introduction – and, looking across the audience, he clapped and said something many had told him before, “Welcome home.”
This is how Brig. Gen. Joseph Martin, commanding general of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, began the official ceremony April 18, for the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, addressing the hundreds of Vietnam Veterans in attendance.
“Thank you” and “Welcome home.” Both were said over and over to the Veterans by all the speakers, Soldiers, family members and the community.
The day began with a parade and motorcycle ride from the nearby city of Barstow to the gate of the remote desert post. All along the way the road was filled with classic cars, motorcycles, and military vehicles. Hundreds of members of the Fort Irwin community lined the streets to welcome the Veterans, waving and clapping as they approached.
Upon the Veterans’ arrival, the commemoration moved to a field with displays, vendors, and a massive tent full of tables and a stage. The entrance to the tent displayed the flags of all 50 states, and, as they made their way inside, Veterans and family members were greeted by dozens of volunteers, the installation’s leadership group, local government officials and organizers.
“It was wonderful,” said Jim Welte, a Vietnam Veteran who served in the Navy. “It made me cry to shake hands, see my friends.”
Handshakes, hugs, greetings, laughs and smiles filled the tent from end to end. All around, the mood was one of joy and appreciation. As Martin took the stage, he continued it with thanking all the Veterans for their service, and greeting them with the words current servicemembers receive upon return from deployments – “Welcome home.”
“Those that have served during that period of time in our nation’s history didn’t receive the appropriate welcome when they came home, which they deserved,” Martin said.
That sentiment has changed, he added, thanks to the service by Vietnam Veterans.
“We understood that regardless of political affiliation, regardless of your beliefs, your ideals, we universally support our servicemembers – no matter what – who go on and fight our nation’s war,” Martin said.
The ceremony moved on to a more somber mood as the moderator guided the audience’s attention to an empty table near the stage.
“This is a special table,” said Sgt. Cristina Moriset, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1916th Support Battalion here and moderator for the event. “It is reserved to honor our fallen and missing servicemembers, who made the ultimate sacrifice or are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.”
Following the Missing Man ceremony, attendees ate lunch and spoke with current servicemembers and community members. Following lunch the ceremony resumed with numerous guest speakers addressing the honored guests.
Among the speakers were: Medal of Honor Recipient Harold Fritz; Congressman Paul Cook, representing California’s 8th Congressional District, and ; Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James Jackson, a Vietnam-era Veteran and current senior advisor to the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration. Other attendees included Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre, mayor of Barstow, and Jay Obernolte, California State Assemblyman for District 33.
As the ceremony concluded, Vietnam War Veterans mingled and spoke with current servicemembers and Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, discussing their experience and thanking each other for their support.
Robert Washington, a retired command sergeant major with more than 30 years of service, had some advice for young servicemembers thinking of staying in the service.
“Be professional,” Washington said. “If you choose the military to stay in, be professional, then do your duty, be of honor and respect for the service.”