There’s an expression that summarizes the sacrifices of American service members in all wars the country has fought: “All gave some. Some gave all.”
But the Vietnam War is the one, VFW members said Saturday, in which service members faced a tumultuous political climate and protest unlike any other when they returned home. A climate in which in some cases service members themselves were objects of political attack.
A total of 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War. Some are still listed as missing in action and many who returned still experience post-traumatic stress issues. Others have dealt with the lingering effects of Agent Orange poisoning.
Those wounds and others have never fully healed, Mississippi VFW State Commander and retired Air Force Master Sgt. Charles Purchner Jr. said. Purchner was the guest speaker at Saturday’s Vietnam War Commemoration Ceremony at the Long Beach Activity and Senior Center.
“The nation has overlooked and disrespected our Vietnam vets,” he said. “I’ve seen their faces and I feel their pain. The time has come to honor and respect them.”
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, authorized the secretary of defense to conduct a program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam conflict.
Four years ago, President Barack Obama proclaimed a 13-year program to acknowledge the more than 1 million men and women who served in the war.
Purchner, a 1968 Gulfport High School graduate, drew from personal experience. He took after his father, Charles Sr., who served in World War II, the Korean War and in Vietnam. After high school, Purchner Jr. joined the Air Force and was sent to Vietnam. The Vietnamese town he served in was known as rocket alley to the troops, because of the many sniper attacks his camp took.
When Purchner returned home from the war, his plane landed in San Francisco. He was surprised to see protesters, who weren’t protesting the war, but him and other service members. He recalls being advised to wear civilan clothes instead of their uniforms.
“I was thinking, we fought for your freedom to protest, and you’re protesting us,” he said.
Purchner’s father, who served two tours in Vietnam, would later fall ill of the effects of Agent Orange.
VFW member William Stevens served in the Seabees during the war.
“A lot of us were shunned when we came home,” he said. “The Vietnam war was probably the worst when it came to that. I think it’s important to honor those who served and keep their memory alive, because many of them are still suffering..
‘Welcome home, boys’
Purchner said he recently returned from the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, where he honored fellow Gulfport service member Charles Henry Wright, who was 20 when he was killed in action in Vietnam.
He asked all the veterans in the room to stand.
“It’s well past due. But I want to say to you, Welcome home, boys.”