“On behalf of a grateful nation, sir, welcome home.”
With these words, Major General Arnold Fields greeted the Southern Tier’s surviving Vietnam War-era veterans, giving each a pin in token of their service.
Some offered crisp salutes in reply. One embraced Fields, who retired from the Marines after a 24-year career and now currently serves on the staff of the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration.
“I never needed no parade, just a ‘good job,’” the Air Force veteran said, his voice thick with emotion.
“You did a good job, sir,” Fields replied.
The pinning ceremony, which took place Aug. 15 in SUNY Broome’s West Gym, is part of an ongoing national effort to honor all Vietnam War-era service members who were on active duty between Nov. 1, 1955, and May 15, 1975, regardless of where they served. Established in 2008, the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration seeks to thank and honor all these surviving veterans. Ceremonies began May 28, 2012, under President Barack Obama and will continue through Veterans Day 2025.
The Broome County ceremony was hosted by U.S. Representative Anthony Brindisi, and honored approximately 40 veterans from all branches of the military.
The last American conflict subject to the draft, the Vietnam War impacted millions – many of whom faced derision rather than thanks afterward. “When we came home from that war, very few of us were recognized,” said Col. Ben Margolius, a Vietnam War veteran retired from the U.S. Army and president of the Southern Tier Veterans Support Group. “Nine million of you served.”
About 7 million veterans remained in 2008. Their numbers are declining at a rate of 523 a day, according to the Veterans Administration last year, Fields said.
Joe Angelino, who attended the service as a representative of Assemblyman Cliff Crouch, served in the Marines during Desert Storm. Many non-commissioned officers were Vietnam veterans, offering needed support and encouragement to their younger colleagues, he said.
He offered a heartfelt apology. “Americans now have learned to support the soldier no matter who sent them to war or why they sent them to war, and we learned that at your expense,” Angelino said.
The event included vocal performances: SUNY Broome student Anastasia Alexopoulos sang the national anthem, and Fields – known in some quarters as “the singing general” – gave a soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
The commemorative pins are highly symbolic, featuring the image of an eagle to represent courage, honor and commitment, a blue contour for vigilance and justice, and six stars representing the nations that served alongside one another. On the reverse is a statement: A grateful nation thanks and honors you.
“I hope you will wear these pins with pride,” Congressman Brindisi said.
The freedom to pursue an education
SUNY Broome President Kevin Drumm narrowly missed the draft; it ended the year he graduated high school. He had two friends who served, however. One became a golf pro but died young, never able to overcome the effects of the war, he remembered.
Like many of the nation’s community colleges, SUNY Broome owes its origins to veterans returning from World War II. The G.I. Bill opened the doors of opportunity to millions returning home, changing the face of higher education at a time when many individuals were lucky if they had a chance to graduate high school. New York State developed five Institutes of Applied Sciences that became the core of the new community college system – SUNY Broome among them.
The college continues to take its commitment to veterans seriously, including such initiatives as a Veterans Resource Center and an annual ceremony for Veterans Day at the campus Veterans Monument. SUNY Broome also has hosted educational events centered on the Vietnam War experience, such as a photo exhibit by a local veteran and a community reading of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, President Drumm said.
“As an educational institution, we have a responsibility to keep our nation’s history alive for generations to come. That history involves more than just facts, figures and dates; it comes from the experiences, stories and sacrifices of the people who lived through those times, people like the veterans here today,” Dr. Drumm said.
Community college classes teach students the in-depth history behind events, reflected Broome County Executive Jason Garnar. More than two decades ago, he took a class at SUNY Broome on the Vietnam War experience that brought the realities of the conflict and its aftermath to light. The class brought in veterans to discuss their experiences, a practice he repeated when he taught history and government at Allynwood Academy.
“We can do a little bit every day to make it right,” he said.