No one needed to give an order as Tim Noonan, chairman of the Missouri Veterans Commission, stepped away from the microphone and a trumpeter stepped forward to play taps. As the first notes filled the Capitol rotunda, hundreds of grey-haired men and women spontaneously removed their caps and rose to their feet.
It was one of many solemn moments as veterans were honored during a Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony held in Jefferson City, April 15. Approximately 400 veterans who served on active duty between November 1955 and May 15, 1975, attended the ceremony, which was sponsored by the General Assembly and the Missouri Veterans Commission.
Noonan, who previously served as a captain in the Marine Corps, described a small table set before the gathered veterans. Intended as a memorial to America’s prisoners of war and military personnel missing in action, the table was draped in white, with a single candle burning and a red rose and yellow ribbon placed beside an over-turned glass. You could feel the emotion in the room as the speaker described the symbolism of each item.
Throughout the morning ceremony, speaker after speaker honored the service of the men and women gathered and expressed regret that America did not properly welcome soldiers, sailors and airmen at the time they returned from service five decades ago. Family members of the honored guests watched from the second- and third-floor balconies of the rotunda.
“It is my pleasure to welcome you here today, and welcome you home,” said Missouri Veterans Commission Executive Director and Air Force Reserves Col. Grace Link. “I can’t remember a time when we’ve had so many Vietnam veterans, together with their families, in the Capitol of the great state of Missouri. It’s an honor and a privilege to have you here today and welcome you home properly.”
U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War era is generally regarded as having begun in November 1955 and continued until the recapture of the merchant ship Mayaguez in May of 1975, considered the final combat action of the war. The governor’s resolution presented during the Capitol ceremony recognizes all veterans who served on active duty during that period, regardless of duty station, “as all were called to serve and none could self-determine where they were stationed.”
Missouri is home to about 151,000 of the nation’s 6.4 million living Vietnam veterans. Of the 58,000 U.S. military personnel who lost their lives during the conflict, 1,400 were from our state. There are 35 Missourians among the 1,589 listed as missing in action.
As public support for the conflict waned in the late 1960s and early ’70s, servicemen and women returning from Vietnam sometimes faced hostility. Unlike soldiers coming home from recent conflicts in the Middle East, those who served in Southeast Asia were not treated as returning heroes. The Capitol ceremony sought to rectify that, with formal, but long-belated recognition.
Senator Wayne Wallingford, a retired Air Force pilot who flew more than 300 combat missions during the Vietnam War, was among the Missouri elected officials on hand to welcome the veterans to the State Capitol.
“As a member of the Missouri Veterans Commission and a Vietnam Veteran myself, it swelled my heart with pride to see so many soldiers, sailors and airmen fill the Capitol rotunda for this momentous ceremony,” Sen. Wallingford said. “These brave men and women didn’t always get the recognition they deserved when they came home. Now, 50 years later, it’s important for the state and nation to express our gratitude for their service and sacrifice.”
Following an address by Missouri’s governor, who served six years in the U.S. Army, elected officials worked their way through the crowd, shaking each veteran’s hand and thanking them for their service. Every veteran in attendance received a commemorative lapel pin, which was placed on their shirt or jacket as a final token of thanks. The pins, bearing the image of a bald eagle and an American flag were inscribed with a message of overdue appreciation, “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.”