As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the first ground troops in Vietnam, one Army squad leader said it’s been a long time since anyone has called him a baby killer, murderer or rapist.”It was not a very good time, and a lot of us just buried the whole thing in the back of our minds for years because we were not appreciated,” said Wally Collins, one of about 150 people who attended a Memorial Day service at the Orange County Courthouse on Monday.
“Honestly? We felt dirty,” said Collins, of Orlando.
Family members, veterans, politicians and other with ties to conflicts going back to World War II gathered at a sun-filled courtyard framed by black-stone walls etched with the names of hundreds of soldiers who died in any of nine incursions. More than 160 of the names belonged to former Orange County residents who served in one of the nation’s most controversial wars — Vietnam.
Keynote speaker Warren Hudson, a former Navy swiftboat captain in Vietnam, told the crowd that public perception of the Vietnam War is wrong because many believe that America was defeated in its mission to keep Communist control out of South Vietnam.
“Critics said it was an unjust war,” said Hudson, president of Lake Highland Preparatory School. “But our military was never defeated in the air, never defeated by sea and never defeated on land. The sad truth is that we just gave up, as a people.”
Hudson recounted stories including the capture of former Floridian George Everett “Bud” Day, a Medal of Honor recipient who was shot down on his 65th mission into North Vietnam. Hudson described Day’s 20-mile crawl, with a leg broken in three places, and then his capture by the enemy. Day, who died in 2013, was nursed back to health by cellmate John McCain, a Republican U.S. senator and former presidential candidate.
“These are the stories we need to tell and retell our children,” he said.
Hudson spoke of the historic divide between the military and anti-Vietnam War protesters, including actress Jane Fonda. She has since said she regrets anything she did to portray that she didn’t support the U.S. military.
Wearing his decorated Naval dress whites, Hudson told the audience that he once taught classes about the Vietnam War at Tulane University and began the semester with a fictional joke about former President Bill Clinton appointing Fonda to a diplomatic role in the country “but Teddy Kennedy was driving her to the airport.”
Audience members got the joke, including a man with a leather motorcycle vest emblazoned with a patch reading, “[Expletive] you Jane.”
But Hudson said few of his students got the joke because they knew nothing of either Fonda or of Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick Island driving crash in 1969 during which a young woman died. Students’ lack of knowledge about historic events underscores the need to educate them about their nation’s military heroes, he said.
Veterans’ sacrifices from other wars were mentioned during the ceremony but Vietnam was the primary focus.
Sitting in chairs near the back of the audience, Terry Cravey, 60, talked before the service of the day her grandfather picked her up from middle school in west Orlando only to tell her that her father’s military plane had been shot down in Vietnam. At the time, she was 14 and her father was 40.
“He said there were no survivors and I asked, ‘How’s my Dad?” said the Orlando resident. “That’s all I remember.”
Following the service, Orlando transplant Luis Boria, 88, said he served in World War II when he was just 16 and then also in Korea as a Marine. Despite the challenges of war, he said, it was losing his son in the Vietnam War that was one of his life’s greatest hardships. The draft-dodging sentiment of the time made the loss more difficult, he added.
“Four families on my block in New York sent their sons to Canada — four of them,” said Boria, father of four Marines.
And Collins, wearing a fatigue-green T-shirt , said the pain of Vietnam has subsided. He said he’s been able to revisit the memories of war and his re-entry home. “I think time heals everything,” he said.