At least 50 veterans were given something Friday that has been more than 50 years in the making — gratitude for their service during the Vietnam War.
The veterans, many of them wearing caps describing their Vietnam experience, were each handed a pin and a presidential proclamation commemorating the 50th anniversary of U.S. involvement, a document first issued by President Barack Obama four years ago.
Obama has proclaimed Memorial Day in 2012 through Veterans Day in 2025 as the period that Americans should honor the nation’s estimated 7 million living Vietnam-era veterans, the 58,000 men and women killed in battle or in theater, the 1,627 still counted as missing in action, and their families.
Bryan Gray, team leader at the Billings Vet Center, spoke during a brief ceremony before asking vets to come forward and accept their pins, copies of the proclamation and the thanks of the crowd gathered outside the West End office.
Friday’s turnout was large enough to move the ceremony outdoors, where veterans enjoyed sparkling weather and the satisfaction of knowing their sacrifice and their pain were at last being acknowledged.
“People saw us as baby killers,” said John Dehoyos of Shepherd, 69, who served for a year in Vietnam in law enforcement for the U.S. Air Force as part of his 22-year military career.
Dehoyos said he was injured in a 1968 explosion while serving at the Phu Cat Air Base in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange and received a 60-percent disability. The explosion knocked out some teeth and left him with a permanent ringing in his ears. But, Friday’s ceremony left him with a good feeling, both he and his wife Robyn said.
As a bonus: Robyn’s son, Isaac Reiss, whom John Dehoyos helped raise, has himself chosen an Air Force career. Dehoyos said the family’s newest airman is three weeks away from completing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Will Dehoyos and his wife be on hand to help Isaac celebrate his accomplishment before he’s shipped off to his first assignment in South Korea?
“You bet we will,” he said with a proud grin.
In his proclamation, Obama, speaking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, said the nation sees in the reflection of what's commonly called The Wall “the military family members and veterans who carry a pain that may never fade.”
Obama called the 13-year observance a way “to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced … Let us remember that it is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor. Let us renew our commitment to the fullest possible accounting for those who have not returned.”
“You sacrificed during one of the most painful chapters in our history,” Gray told the assembled veterans and their families. “You were blamed for a war you didn’t start. You were denigrated when you should have been celebrated. We owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Friday’s ceremony, he said, “gives us the opportunity to do something we should have done 50 years ago.”
The Billings Vet Service, at 2795 Enterprise Ave., Suite 1, offers mental health and other services to Billings-area veterans. Phone 406-657-6071 or visit www.va.gov/directory/guide/facility.asp?ID=618 for more information.