“Thank you for your service, valor and sacrifice.”
Many Vietnam veterans have waited to hear those words. Some 50 years after the war, they received a warm welcome home organized by the Looking Glass Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, based in O’Fallon.
About 30 veterans were recognized July 20 in a ceremony at the O’Fallon VFW Hall. They received a commemorative pin, descriptive packet and honors. Retired Brig. Gen. Rick Hargrove was the keynote speaker.
“It’s very important to honor these guys,” DAR member Dee Duke said.
“We’re doing what should have been done 50 years ago,” said Rhonda Leach, DAR Looking Glass Chapter regent.
It was a very different time when more than 3 million servicemen and women returned home after the Vietnam War.
They were not thanked or welcomed home. They were met by protestors at the airport. They were spit on or called names.
Deborah LaFreniere, of O’Fallon, the widow of Richard LaFreniere, was grateful that these events now take place. Her husband was retired from a long career in the U.S. Army and died from Agent Orange complications in August 2016. He had served as a military police officer in 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam and had received a Bronze Star.
She said he was very touched when he attended a DAR welcome home ceremony in Altamont, Illinois.
“He was quite emotional. He said it was the best homecoming, and he wished he had had it 50 years ago. He just cried,” LaFreniere said. “So many other veterans in attendance said the same thing.”
The DAR, along with the federal government, embarked on a Welcome Home project in 2012, Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War.
These commemorations by local governments, communities and organizations may take place for 13 years.
“It is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor. They deserve the fullest respect and support of a grateful nation,” said former President Barack Obama in a proclamation that now hangs at the O’Fallon VFW, presented to Commander Ed Martinez last Thursday.
“From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, Hue to Saigon, and all the villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoons, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans,” the proclamation reads.
He noted the 58,000 names etched in black granite on “The Wall” monument. More than 1,600 servicemen are still missing from the conflict.
O’Fallon Mayor Herb Roach, an Army veteran, spoke about the mood of the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He saluted all those who served, and asked former City Clerk Phil Goodwin to stand in recognition of his more than 100 combat missions he flew as an Air Force pilot.
Roach, who served stateside and not overseas, said he saw people flee to Canada, injure themselves, and belittle the government.
“That was a horrible time for anyone in uniform,” he said, also noting families who suffered because of the war.
Gen. Hargrove, who retired at Scott Air Force Base, talked about how the U.S. became involved in Vietnam.
“It goes back years and years,” he said.
He concluded with the importance of serving our country.
“We must stand together,” he said.
He noted that he had seen a preview of a Ken Burns documentary — 10 episodes — that will air on PBS beginning Sept. 18.
After the ceremony, the honorees enjoyed cake and fellowship.
Ken Diel, who lives in DeSoto, Missouri, brought photos of his Army days. He served “one year, eight months and 13 days” beginning in 1971, he said.
“This is the first commemoration since I got back,” he said.
His daughter, Cindy Modrosic, who attended with her two sons, said her dad hasn’t eaten a mashed potato since May 25, 1971.
Diel talked about soldiers sending their wives and sweethearts cassette tapes as audio letters home.
“We had to go up to the rooftop of our barracks so you wouldn’t get anyone acting up while you were recording,” he said.
John Lowe, of Swansea, and Frank Christie, of Collinsville, are Marines who served after they graduated from Collinsville High School in 1966. Friends now, they help at the VFW fish fry and swap war stories, but they didn’t know each other back then.
“We had to look up each other in the yearbook. Our class was 500 back then,” Christie said.
The local chapter of DAR was pleased with the reception, club treasurer Linda Hangsleben said.
“I loved every second of this tonight,” she said. “That’s why these guys should have gotten this in the first place. So many soldiers talk about how they were treated.”
The Looking Glass Chapter, which has 26 members, plans to sponsor more events, she said.
“We have until 2025. We hope we can do two or three a year. It’s expensive. That’s why we hold bake sales and garage sales,” she said.