Fifty years after American service members returned from a foreign land having lost a war, there’s still a sting for some Vietnam veterans.
Despite a respect for veterans as our nation's heroes today the lack of a welcome home remains a sore subject, but one that the Jacksonville Museum of Military History strives to relieve annually.
“The Welcome Home Vietnam veterans event is my favorite event that we have at this museum,” said the woman in charge of putting it together, Elizabeth Harward, the museum director. “It is a chance for us to pay tribute and honor the Vietnam veterans and welcome them home and give them the kind of welcome home that they did not get after the Vietnam War.”
For a dozen or so years (give or take a pandemic), organizers have held an event with civic leaders and officials from the nearby Little Rock Air Force Base. They lay our the welcome mat even though it wasn't exactly out 50 years ago.
“Thank you for everyone that did serve and thanks for everyone being here today to recognize those for the recognition they should have gotten when they got home a long time ago,” said Jacksonville mayor Bob Johnson.
“A lot of my friends that came home…in the bigger cities, they were spit on and just all kinds of problems,” said Derl Horn, the keynote speaker for this year’s event. “And matter of fact, some of them didn't even want to didn't wear their uniforms.”
Horn is retired and living in Springdale but wrote a book several years after coming home from fighting with the renowned 1st battalion, 9th Marines - the so-called "Walking Dead." His goal is to share a somewhat untold story.
“[North Vietnamese commander] General Giap was so confident that he could wipe us out that he tagged us ‘dead men walking,’” Horn said during his speech. “This is not the TV series you may be familiar with.”
Horn's unit also sustained some of the highest casualty rates of war.
He tells his story at more and more events like this as time wears on.
There's melancholy as more than a hundred names of fallen service members killed in action between 1970-72 are read out, with a bell tolling after each year’s list. An honor guard also performed a ceremony where dress hats, or covers, representing the five services are placed on a table set for five without chairs.
But also there is also solace and opportunities for correction.
“I just hope to encourage other veterans that that we don't have to do drugs and alcohol to survive the war, you know, the memories and all,” said Horn.
And with several young cadets and active duty members in attendance – and more than a few young families – this year’s ceremony managed to acknowledge progress made while honoring the past.
“We feel like they're the young guys and gals coming home from recent wars who get a good welcome, which we didn't,” said Horn. “We're happy about that. We kind of feel like that maybe our time, encourage that to happen.”
“It's just a chance for everyone to come out and thank our veterans, which is the most important reason why this museum is here,” said Harward.
The museum is hard to miss on a city block between both sides of Main St., along Veterans Circle with a replica jet and helicopter on the grassy property. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Saturdays.
There’s a small admission price as well as a gift shop with funds going toward more events like the Welcome Home ceremony.