Veterans organizations, including the VA Western New York Healthcare System, are honoring Vietnam-era veterans as they observe the 50th anniversary of the first formal U.S. ground combat operations of that lengthy war.
Dozens of Vietnam-era veterans received a commemorative pin and proclamation at a ceremony hosted Tuesday morning inside the George F. Lamm American Legion Post on Williamsville. The keynote speaker was Retired U.S. Army Major General John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
While recalling the book The Greatest Generation, former network television news anchor Tom Brokaw's tribute to the World War II generation, Batiste suggested they every generation of men and women in the military is the greatest generation.
"You all answered the call. You all raised your right hand and said I'm in," he said. "Sadly, there are few Americans today who do that. Way too few. In my personal opinion, that's a problem."
He also offered statistics comparing the average exposure to combat for Vietnam and World War II soldiers. According to Batiste, World War II soldiers faced, on average, 40 days of combat in a year. Vietnam veterans, he said, faced direct combat 240 days of a calendar year.
Batiste thanked Vietnam veterans for reaching out and welcoming Iraq War-era veterans like him upon their return home from duty. It was a hero's welcome that Batiste said his father didn't get. According to Batiste his father, who previously served in World War II and in Korea, was welcomed home from Vietnam with reactions ranging from indifference to hostility.
Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who also addressed the veterans and helped distribute their honors, recalled the warning her uncle got to not wear his uniform upon returning home. In spite of the warnings he would be spat on by fellow Americans, she said, he wore his greens.
Four of her uncles were in Vietnam. She also spoke of the many untold tales that Vietnam veterans have withheld through the years.
"I asked one of my uncles, why do you never speak of this?" she said. "You have stories to tell. We're proud of you."
The answer from her uncle, she said, was because many U.S. troops were left behind. The most updated official counts list more than 58,000 dead and more than 1,600 still missing.
Major General Batiste encouraged Vietnam veterans to share their stories with the ones the nation will depend on next.
"What have you done to share your stories, with your family and your friends?" he asked. "It's really important that you do it. Maybe write them down, maybe chronicle it. But for sure, sit down and talk to your grandkids.
"You're building the next generation of Americans that are going to volunteer to serve and we desperately need those great people. That's my challenge to you."