With gratitude, Kent County embraces Vietnam veterans and their families

CHESTERTOWN — In their proclamation declaring March 29 as Vietnam War Veterans Day in Kent County, every year, County Commissioners Ron Fithian, John Price and Albert Nickerson noted that it is never too late to honor those who answered the call of duty with courage and valor.

That in a nutshell is at the core of what has become a national event — saying “thank you” to the men and women, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, and their families for service during a lengthy war in Southeast Asia that bitterly divided Americans on the home front.

This was the third edition of Vietnam War Veterans Day observed locally in Chestertown’s downtown Memorial Park.

About 240 people turned out on this cool, breezy Good Friday evening. Every seat was taken, with the overflow standing in the shadow of nearby Emmanuel Episcopal Church.

A U.S. Marine Corps color guard from Marine Barracks Washington presented the colors at the 6 p.m. start of the solemn ceremony, followed by the national anthem sung by the Queen Anne’s County Vietnam Veterans Glee Club (MASH 21617), recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance led by Washington College’s Kappa Sigma fraternity and an opening prayer by Gary Schiff, longtime cantor and religious leader of the Chestertown Havurah.

Framing Americans’ experiences during the Vietnam War in the context of the current Israeli-Palestine conflict, Schiff said U.S. soldiers, seamen and Marines “faced at best indifference, at worst hostility … made to feel as if you were at fault.”

Speakers struck a familiar chord in the hour-long ceremony, that Vietnam veterans in the 1960s and 1970s were treated harshly — unlike the veterans of World War II and Korea who received parades and concerts as heroes when they returned home.

In his keynote address, Vietnam combat veteran Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, shared four anecdotes to sum up what he described as “the insanity” of the Vietnam War.

“So many brave men and women endured so much pain and agony, and for what?” Wilkerson asked rhetorically as he wrapped up his talk.

Following Wilkerson’s remarks, members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity explained the elements of the Missing Man Table, sometimes called the Fallen Comrade Table — a white cloth, single red rose displayed in a vase, a red ribbon, a slice of lemon, a pinch of salt, a lighted candle, a Bible, an inverted glass and an empty chair.

The most poignant part of the ceremony was the special pinning ceremony to honor the Gold Star families of the five area servicemen who were killed in Vietnam; the spouses of Vietnam War-era veterans who have since died; and all who served during the Vietnam War era.

The lapel pin features the message, “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You.”

There is a plaque in Memorial Park that acknowledges the local heroes who were killed in Vietnam. The honorees, their ages, dates of death and cemeteries where they are buried are listed here.

• Capt. Clarence Matthews Newcomb, 37: June 25, 1965; Chester Cemetery.

• Spc. 4 Raymond Lester Elliott, 20: Jan. 15, 1967; Pondtown.

• Pfc. Robert Julian Davis Jr., 20: Aug. 7, 1967; Galena.

• Pfc. Virgil Henry Wilson Jr., 20; Oct. 11, 1968; Golts.

• Sgt. Carl Joseph Crew, 21: March 24, 1969; Still Pond.

This year, recognition of Gold Star families was expanded to include the Chestertown parents of 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, 24, who was fatally injured in a training exercise at Camp Pendleton, California in May 2019, and Kent County High School graduate Bryan Nicholas Spry, 19, a paratrooper with the elite 82nd Airborne Division, who was killed when a bridge collapsed and dropped his Humvee into a water-filled ditch near Baghdad in February 2004.

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Nationally, this was the seventh edition of the event that honors all veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during what is considered the Vietnam War era, Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975 — regardless of location.

This includes nurses and doctors too.

A statement on the vietnamwar50th.com website states: “We make no distinction between veterans who served in-country, in-theater, or who were stationed elsewhere during the Vietnam War period. All were called to serve and none could self-determine where they would serve.”

The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, signed into law by then-President Donald Trump, designates March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day to thank and honor veterans and their families for their service and sacrifices.

This special day joins six other military-centric annual observances: Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, Navy Day and Veterans Day.

The date of March 29 was chosen to be observed in perpetuity because March 29, 1973 was the day the last U.S. troops left South Vietnam.

Around this same day, Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam, released the last of its acknowledged prisoners of war.

Locally, Chestertown resident Peter Sweetser, who served in the Marine Reserves for six years stateside as a helicopter crew chief during the war, headed up the planning committee for the third year. Committee members included Paul Showalter, commander of Chestertown American Legion Post 36; Larry Wilson, immediate past president of the Sumner Hall board of directors; Bonnie Hill, regent of Old Kent Chapter DAR; Aaron R. Krochmal, advisor, and members of the Washington College Kappa Sigma fraternity; and Phyllis Brown.

The American Legion posts in Betterton and Rock Hall also were partners in this event.

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