Day Honoring Veterans, another chapter in Vietnamese legacy

By Frank Zufall

Published: Friday, September 11, 2009 11:26 AM CDT

Today’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans debark airplanes on American soil and walk through air terminals where civilians stand up and offer a round of applause for returning heroes.

Parades and welcome-back ceremonies are held in small communities like Spooner and larger municipalities such as Duluth for soldiers, airmen, and sailors going to or returning from serving overseas.

But during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s, an unpopular war with many families divided over that conflict, some Americans vented their war anger directly at the returning veterans, and a country failed to fully honor those who fought in a conflict in which most were young men drafted and ordered by their government to serve. Some Vietnam veterans landing in the United States quickly changed from their uniforms into civilian clothes in an attempt to not be recognized as a serviceman and possibly be confronted with undeserved epitaphs not worth repeating.

To say the least, the majority of Vietnam veterans never received their hero’s welcome home. The war was not separated from the soldier.

But now there is a small but growing movement to properly welcome home Vietnam veterans. All across the nation veterans, who now mostly sport gray hair and some who walk with a limp or are in a wheelchair, are asked to file into the center spotlight while others stand up and cheer and offer the long-overdue respect.

As part of that movement, one huge welcome-back ceremony for Vietnam veterans next year is called “LZ Lambeau, Welcome Home May 2010,” to be held May 21-23 in Green Bay. The letters “LZ” stands for “landing zone” or “a safe place to land.” The honoring celebration is meant to be a safe place where Vietnam veterans are honored in one of the most celebrated venues in America – Lambeau Field.

Even before LZ Lambeau, another very propitious event will occur in Wisconsin – Vietnam veterans Day, March 29.

On July 20, Gov. Doyle signed a bill that established March 29 to say “thank you” to Vietnam veterans.

Driving force

Her name is Thuy Smith. She was born in Vietnam and came to America as a baby. Her father, William Vann, served in Vietnam where he also met Smith’s mother, Huong Vann, who today operates Huong’s Little Wok restaurant in Hayward.

Thuy, formerly of Hayward and now living in Eau Claire, is recognized as the driving force behind the Vietnam Veterans Day in Wisconsin.

Like the Vietnam veterans she has come to meet through the years, she also struggled with a Vietnamese legacy as a mixed-race child growing up in the mostly white culture of the Northland.

As an adult she returned to Vietnam to connect to relatives, and she found pride in her heritage and a vocation to carry out relief work through her non-profit organization Thuy Smith International Outreach.

As Thuy has found a place and purpose for her life in her Vietnamese journey she has sought to help the veterans who are still seeking a missing part of their lives – the honor due their service.

“The least any of them did was their duty,” she said

Smith said her motivation for the veterans, like her dad, is that they receive the recognition they deserve.

“The Vietnam veterans have been at the forefront of making sure these returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are honored because they know the heartache of coming back and not being recognized,” she said.

In pursuing legislation, Smith made two trips to Madison and gave testimony to a committee, and she also encouraged Vietnam veterans to speak out.

Reaching out

Smith and her family have been involved in honoring Vietnam veterans for a number of years. This Saturday in Altoona the fourth annual Vietnam Veteran Appreciation gathering will occur.

“The gatherings have been healing for some and for others closure,” she said. “It’s good for the veterans to share their experiences with others and then they don’t feel so isolated and alone. It’s very moving, very emotional.”

Smith said her mother’s restaurant has been an unofficial gathering spot for veterans.

Early on in Smith’s non-profit work as she became involved in sending medical supplies back to the country of her birth, a lingering thought grew that she would help Vietnam veterans.

When she was 23, she received a request from a Vietnam veteran counselor to go to Duluth and speak to a group of Vietnam veterans about her work in Vietnam.

“I called the counselor and tried to get out of it,” she said. “I didn’t think I had anything to say to them.”

The counselor persisted, and Smith arrived and stood before a group of veterans who could have been her father’s fishing buddies.

She told her story of being born in Vietnam and coming to America as a baby, and she talked about her relief work and what she observed in Vietnam and how the Vietnamese people today recognized the generosity of Americans and especially veterans who returned for visits.

“I told them the Vietnamese people had been at war for centuries – with the Japanese, French, Chinese – and it has only been the Americans who have come back after a war and sought reconciliation and helped their country recover from war,” she said. “They call Americans the beautiful and generous people.”

Smith connected with the group of veterans that day and what was supposed to be a short presentation turned into a four-hour session.

“A number of those veterans from Duluth and Superior have driven down to Hayward to mother’s Vietnamese restaurant to see us,” she said.

Smith has incorporated Vietnam veterans in assisting her in relief work back in Vietnam. She said when veterans are ready to go back, they discover the people of Vietnam have no animosity toward them, and many veterans have found the trip to be a healing experience.

“The people are very welcoming to the veterans,” she said. “It is almost a surreal experience, and many veterans come back; some are even living over there six months out of the year.”

Smith said when she is in Vietnam, most Vietnamese do not recognize her as part Vietnamese even though she speaks the language.

“It is not until they see me write my name in Vietnamese and see my name ‘Thuy,’ which is very Vietnamese, that they recognize my connection,” she said.

That failure to be fully recognized for her own unique heritage is just a small reminder to Smith of the pain so many Vietnam veterans experienced in their journey decades ago back to the States.

Smith hopes with events like the Sept. 19 gathering in Altoona and the March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day, Vietnam veterans will come to feel they are appreciated and fully recognized by their country.

Spooner Advocate

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