Vietnam may be a wound that never heals, but veterans of that war appreciated the warm but belated homecoming they received Saturday.
“This all means a lot,” said David Ekrote at a Miramar Air Show ceremony honoring Vietnam vets — the first of two that day.
Ekrote said he was awarded three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Star Medals, one with a V for valor, while in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1968-69.
“All my brothers and sisters that didn’t make it back are there, and it just hurts to know there’s so many that might have been wounded from that war that are still suffering,” he said. “It’s a real tribute that they have this wall for all those guys.”
The Miramar Air Show’s “Salute to Vietnam Veterans” included a mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall, speakers and commemorative lapel pins with the engraving “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.”
Indeed, that was the greeting from Stacia Nemeth with The Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall, who said: “On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for your service and welcome home.”
Then she gave each veteran a hug, which in itself was special, veterans said.
Retired Master Chief Charles Dudley found the name of his boss, fallen First Class Petty Officer Charles Hatcher, and wept.
He was ministered to by a chaplain, but as he left the area said, “There are six more on (the wall), but it brings back too many memories, and I gotta get out of here.”
Vietnam veteran Michael Muñoz talked about the emotional pain that has persisted for nearly a half-century.
“It’s a permanent thing,” Muñoz said. “I just try and put it behind me if you can. … It’s like it’s in front of you every time you turn around.”
He still has anguish over his time in the service 48 years ago.
“It was horrible,” he said. “It was an ugly time. And then to come home and face what we had to face, getting off the airplane.”
“You have your little family walking you home, but yet you see all these … protestors and getting spit at and everything else. It was horrible.”
But he added: “I’m glad to see that the American people are finally coming around and recognizing and honoring the American Vietnam veteran.”
“I think it’s a fine fitting memorial to all the soldiers and airmen and servicemen that passed away,” Muñoz said. “I’m so happy that it’s on display here today.”
Cmdr. Manuel “Don” Biadog, a Marine Corps Air Station Miramar chaplain, carried a Bible and comforted men and women who dealt with their grief when they found on the wall names of family members and fellow soldiers.
“This is a humbling experience to me to honor the Vietnam veterans here,” said Biadog, who has been in the military for 27 years.
Many of the veterans that he ministered to over the weekend are suffering from survivor’s guilt, the chaplain said, relating a story:
“I saw one of the Marines, and he started crying. And I basically was present with him. ‘I’m a chaplain. I’m here. Tell me what’s going on here.’ He said, ‘Well, this man right here was supposed to be [at] my wedding. And he had to go on a last patrol … and he never came back.’ ”
Biadog continued, “So he was in tears. He went home alive and then his friend died. He was going home to get married. He still has that Navy survival guilt.”
Speaking of the wall, the chaplain said: “Spiritually, this connects them to the people. Some have said the wall will separate you, but this wall connects you with people, connects you with those who have departed.”
The AV (Antelope Valley) wall on display on the north perimeter of the air show is a half-scale size tribute monument with 58,318 names on it. The highest casualty month was May 1968 with more than 2,400 military members killed, according to the wall website.
Dwight Osborne of Oceanside, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71, said he would like to see the country adopt a “military tax” to fund health benefits for all service members and veterans.
And while he appreciated the display at the air show, he thinks that Korean War veterans have largely been forgotten.
Richard Montesano of San Diego, who accompanied friend Muñoz to the ceremony, was a chemical specialist in the military in Vietnam in 1966-67.
He and fellow servicemen dropped bombs, tear gas and Agent Orange from helicopters.
Today he has a lump on his neck that doctors tell him is a fatty deposit.
“Everything seems to be OK,” Montesano said. “I’m not happy, but I’m healthy. My wife did have five miscarriages, but I do have two healthy children — a boy and a girl. And everybody seems to be OK.”
“So I’m thankful that I’m alive.”
Said Darlene Anderson with the mobile memorial: “If this wall gives just a small amount of relief, then it’s all worth it.”