WISCONSIN MILWAUKEE SENTINEL JOURNAL

Daughter led effort for state’s Vietnam Veterans Day

She understands that it wasn’t easy for Bill Smith and hundreds of thousands of other veterans returning from Vietnam. Many did not receive warm welcomes home, not like veterans of World War II or Korea.

Daughter led effort for state’s Vietnam Veterans Day

She understands that it wasn’t easy for Bill Vann and hundreds of thousands of other veterans returning from Vietnam. Many did not receive warm welcomes home, not like veterans of World

And Thuy Smith’s father had an additional element to his homecoming: having found love in the war, he came home to rural Wisconsin with a wife and baby daughter from Vietnam.

Growing up, Thuy Smith felt isolated and found herself pushing away her Vietnamese heritage.

Then she began meeting Vietnam veterans who came to her mother’s Vietnamese restaurant, Huong’s Little Wok, in Hayward. They found a common thread stitching their pasts together. She shared with the veterans the same sense of lingering sadness, a feeling of not fitting in.

“The veterans told me that because I represented Vietnam for them, they could relate to me,” said Smith, whose parents will celebrate their 39th wedding anniversary in May. “Coming together with others who understand and talking with them brought a lot of healing to me.”

Now she’s helping give back to Vietnam veterans such as her father, who served two extended tours in Vietnam, and the men she met at her mother’s restaurant. Two years ago she learned of efforts to organize a Vietnam Veterans Day in Minnesota and Tennessee, and she thought Wisconsin also should recognize the day.

So she contacted state lawmakers, organized a letter-writing campaign, testified at a public hearing and stood behind Gov. Jim Doyle last summer as he signed an act making March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day in Wisconsin. This weekend in Eau Claire the first event will be held.

“I want the next generations to know about who these men were. There are so many whose stories have never been told. I’ve learned so much from them, and I want to share that knowledge,” Smith, 37, said in a phone interview from her Eau Claire home.

Smith has returned several times to the country she left as an 8-month-old baby, and she runs a nonprofit organization, Thuy Smith International Outreach Inc. Based in Eau Claire, it raises money for youth programs and vocational training in Vietnam and distributes donated medical supplies. On her last visit in January, she brought two Vietnam veterans, including David Backstrom, a retired Eau Claire police officer who served in Vietnam as a Navy corpsman.

Backstrom, who also attended the bill signing in the state Capitol, said Wisconsin’s Vietnam veterans should be recognized for their sacrifices.

(Group of veterans Thuy invited & organized to take with her to witness the signing of the bill).

“It identifies a period of time that kind of got lost,” said Backstrom, who was stationed in Da Nang in 1966. “It means that the Vietnam veterans of Wisconsin have a time set aside to recognize all those soldiers who were killed.”

More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam – the names of 1,239 Wisconsinites are etched in black granite on the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington.

The idea for a day dedicated to Vietnam veterans began in Tennessee when Ron “Scooter” Dyer went to a Veterans Day event “where Vietnam was never mentioned during the whole program,” he said. Dyer vowed to do something about it, managed to get the Tennessee Legislature to back the idea, and the first Vietnam Veterans Day was held in that state in 2007. Since then, Dyer said, more than 30 states have approved or are in the process of recognizing Vietnam Veterans Day.

Organizers chose March 29 because the remaining combat troops left Vietnam on that day in 1973.

Wisconsin’s first Vietnam Veterans Day will be celebrated at Eau Claire North High School from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Saturday. The event will feature speakers, a display of a Huey helicopter, video of an upcoming Vietnam veterans documentary by Wisconsin Public Television and music. A banquet is scheduled for Saturday night in Eau Claire.

For more information, go to: www.thuysmithinternationaloutreach.org

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