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Memorial Day ceremony honors Vietnam-era fallen and missing

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By Corinne Westeman

During World War II, it was common for households to place stars in their windows to represent how many family members were in the armed forces. And, if one of them died serving their country, the star would be replaced with a gold one.

“There were six gold stars on my block in Kansas City,” American Legion member and World War II veteran Charles Purcell said on Memorial Day. “One for my next-door neighbor. One for an only child. One for my brother ... Today we celebrate those ‘gold stars.’ “

American Legion Post 2001 of Evergreen held its sixth annual Memorial Day ceremony Monday afternoon at Buchanan Park’s Veterans Commemorative Walk. Purcell was one of the speakers, and clarified that Memorial Day honors servicemen and -women who have died.

“Veterans Day honors the veterans still living,” he said. “Memorial Day honors the fallen, missing, and veterans who have since passed on.”

American Legion Commander Mike Lynch said the fallen “are never gone, so long as they are in our hearts.”

This year, Lynch said, the community should especially honor the fallen, missing, and deceased veterans of the Vietnam War, as the post marked the war’s 50th anniversary.

“In times of peace, people tend to forget their military and veterans,” he said. “When the Vietnam veterans came back, they were not honored as they should have been. They were spat on and jeered at. They were not proud to be veterans. And for those 58,000 servicemen and -women who died in Vietnam, their sacrifices went unnoticed.”

The post especially honored those missing in action and the prisoners of war from the Vietnam era. The honor guard held an Empty Chair ceremony to represent all MIA/POWs, particularly those from the Vietnam era.

The table was small, set for one, with a white tablecloth, inverted glass, a lemon, salt, a rose, candle, Bible, and American flag. Each item represented something about the MIA/POWs’ missing status, their families’ hope for their return, and their probable ultimate sacrifice for their country.

“This is the terrible reality of war — the loss of life,” said American Legion member Vernon Stelzer, who led that portion of the ceremony.

There were more than 1,000 MIA/POWs during the Vietnam War whose status remains unknown, Stelzer said.

After the MIA/POW commemoration, the post displayed two battlefield crosses for two Vietnam veterans who were killed in action, including posthumous Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Vincent R. Capodanno of the Navy Chaplain Corps. Lynch remarked that Capodanno was killed while trying to minister to wounded and dying soldiers.

“Lt. Capodanno is not a Medal of Honor winner,” he said. “He is a Medal of Honor recipient. He, along with many others, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and the least we can do is recognize and honor their sacrifices.”

The post’s honor guard assembled two battlefield crosses — an inverted rifle with helmet, identification tags and combat boots — and held a Final Roll Call to recognize that the fallen were missing from their ranks.

Overdue recognition

Toward the end of the ceremony, the post asked any Vietnam-era veterans to come forward and receive a commemorative pin. Of the more than 200 attendees, almost 70 veterans came forward to be recognized.

Lynch said the recognition was long overdue.

“I often have people come forward and thank me for my service,” said Lynch, who served in Iraq. “But these men and women received no such ‘Home Depot handshake.’ I think it’s time we honor not only the veterans here, but those in their ranks who never came home.”

Rick Bjorn, a Vietnam-era veteran who attended the ceremony, remarked that many of his peers received very cold welcomes.

“It didn’t happen to me, but I heard about and saw it happen to my friends,” Bjorn said. “These men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan got relatively warm welcomes home. But even then, that included a lot of sad and traumatizing things. And if that was a warm welcome by comparison, I can’t imagine what some of my peers went through.”

Bjorn, who served as a Navy pilot from 1971 to 1976, said the ceremony was “very touching.”

“Taps always brings a tear to my eyes,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends in flying accidents. This day makes me glad that I did serve my country and came back.

“Memorial Day makes you appreciate the sacrifices these men and women made, and treasure the freedoms you have because of them,” Bjorn said. “I wish more people were connected to the military.”

American Legion member Art Gutierrez, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, said Memorial Day helps him “remember the friends and family members who sacrificed everything to keep this country safe.”

“We are so lucky to live in this country, with the freedoms that we have,” Gutierrez said, adding that he was born in Mexico. “We should never take those freedoms, and those who died protecting them, for granted.”

Jen Faust attended the ceremony with her three children because she said it is “a good way to teach children about the cost of freedom.” Faust said she teared up during the POW/MIA Empty Chair ceremony.

“The American Legion does a really good job with this Memorial Day ceremony,” Faust said, clarifying that she also attended last year’s. “It makes you remember that it’s not just a long weekend or a barbecue. It’s a day we remember and celebrate for a reason.”