Vietnam Vets Gather at Memorial Wall to Mark War's '50th Anniversary'

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2016. (Photo by Tim D. Godbee/U.S. Navy)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2016. (Photo by Tim D. Godbee/U.S. Navy)

It's always hard for Vietnam combat veterans to come to the shiny black wall where the names of the war dead are inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial, but a small group was there Tuesday as dignitaries laid a wreath to honor the sacrifice.

"I've got a lot of friends up there, a lot of friends, too many" whose names are listed on the wall, said Peter E. "Pete" Davis, 73, of the Blinded Veterans Association.

"Every time, it's difficult" coming back, said the former sergeant who served with the Army's 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965-67.

"It's always very emotional," said 83-year-old Donald Hilbert, a retired Army major general from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn who served two tours in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and was at the wall with Davis for what was billed as the "50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War."

Hilbert and Davis were among a small group of Viet vets who stood crisply at attention as an Army bugler played "Taps" at the apex of the memorial, the black, V-shaped wall near the Lincoln Memorial which lists the names of more than 58,190 who were killed-in-action or missing-in-action.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Veterans Administration Secretary Bob McDonald presented a wreath to honor the more than seven million Vietnam-era veterans, though the "50th anniversary" designation appeared to confuse some of the vets present.

"I don't know what that 50th thing means," Davis said.

Fifty years ago was 1966. The official reference to the Vietnam War era for the U.S. ran from 1955 to 1975.

Standing nearby was Mark Franklin, a historian for the Vietnam War Commemoration Advisory Committee, who said that the subject of Vietnam and the American involvement there can easily lead to disputes.

"Put 10 historians in a room and you'll come up with 11 different answers" on when the war began for the U.S. and when it ended, he said.

Franklin said that in 1974, then-President Richard M. Nixon declared March 29 as "Vietnam Veterans Day." That was 42 years ago.

The answer is apparently found in the proclamation issued by President Barack Obama in 2012 declaring the period from May 28, 2012, to Nov. 11, 2025, as "the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War." The year 2025 will mark 50 years since the last U.S. troops left Saigon.

Neither Carter nor McDonald spoke in the brief ceremony at the wall, but both later spoke warmly and in private to several Vietnam vets, including Hilbert, who had lined up at the base of the wall to receive Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pins.

The pins said "Vietnam War Veteran" with the image of an eagle on the front and on the back had the statement: "A grateful nation thanks and honors you."

At a later Pentagon news conference, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Carter told each of the Vietnam vets of his gratitude "for their service and steadfast devotion to our country.  He told them he believes they never received the homecoming they deserved" and conveyed that "he's committed to demonstrating the thanks of a grateful nation by supporting veterans and their families in every way he can," Cook said.

Hilbert, who served as a company commander on his first tour in Vietnam and as a battalion commander on his second tour with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said he was grateful to Carter for making time for the vets.

But as always, when he's at the wall, Hilbert said his thoughts returned to that young lieutenant from the 1st Brigade who was so outstanding -- Gardner -- whose name is on the wall.

First Lt. James A. Gardner, of Dyersburg, Tennessee, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions near My Canh, Vietnam, on Feb. 7, 1966. It was his 23rd birthday.

Gardner's citation said that his platoon was advancing "to relieve a company of the 1st Battalion that had been pinned down for several hours by a numerically superior enemy force" fighting out of a series of fortified bunkers. Airstrikes and artillery called in on the enemy positions had little effect.

"Leading the assault and disregarding his own safety, 1st Lt. Gardner charged through a withering hail of fire across an open rice paddy," the citation said. He destroyed a bunker with a grenade, then a second. At the third bunker, the machine-gunner leaped out. Gardner shot and killed him at short range with his rifle.

Gardner rallied his platoon to continue the attack but they were pinned down by machine-gun fire from other bunkers. "Rolling into a ditch to gain cover, he moved toward the new source of fire," the citation said.

"Nearing the position, he leaped from the ditch and advanced with a grenade in one hand and firing his rifle with the other. He was gravely wounded just before he reached the bunker, but with a last valiant effort he staggered forward and destroyed the bunker, and its defenders with a grenade" before succumbing to his wounds. Gardner's "conspicuous gallantry was in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army," the citation said.

In his proclamation, Obama said that "as a grateful nation, we honor more than 58,000 patriots  -- their names etched in black granite -- who sacrificed all they had and all they would ever know."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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