FORT IRWIN – This is the story of how a finally grateful nation honored 332 Vietnam veterans at a special 50th Vietnam Commemoration on April 18 at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center in the desert north of Barstow. Yet the big story is really made up of many smaller tales, such as the story of Kristen Ramirez and her father Jim Wilson. Now 67 years old, Jim served in Vietnam and currently lives at the Barstow Veterans Home. Kristen is the Center Manager of the Bob Hope USO at Ontario International Airport.
Jim spent the week before the commemoration event in the hospital, and his doctors told Kristen it was extremely unlikely he would be able to attend the celebration. But Jim told his daughter he was going to do everything in his power to be there, hoping to ride the Veterans Home bus to the ceremony. He was one of the countless Vietnam veterans who was met with scorn by his fellow Americans when he returned home all those years ago. And now, all these years later, Jim and many fellow veterans were finally going to be properly thanked and honored.
Kristen had to be at Ft. Irwin hours before the festivities began to coordinate the efforts of a dozen Bob Hope USO volunteers supporting the event and its masterful architect, Renita Wickes of Fort Irwin Community Relations. When the Veterans Home bus parked, Kristen rushed over, only to discover that her dad was not there.
“I knew he had tried his best to make it, but he must not have been strong enough to get on the bus,” she said.
The event began with a group photo of veterans at Ft. Irwin’s renowned “painted rocks” about a mile from the front gates. The veterans and their families then headed for a parade, in Army troop carriers, on buses, cars and even on motorcycles. They drove through the streets of Fort Irwin and then were the stars of a parade down the fort’s Inner Loop Road that was lined on both sides by waving and cheering residents of the base and the surrounding communities.
Upon the veterans’ arrival, the commemoration moved to a field with displays, vendors, and a massive tent full of tables and a stage that would hold the more than 1,000 celebrants. The entrance to the tent displayed the flags of all 50 states. As they made their way inside, veterans and family members were greeted by dozens of volunteers, the installation’s leadership group, local government officials, organizers, and men and women in uniform from today’s U.S. Army that gave them a rousing standing ovation until every veteran was seated.
As the long line of heroes filed in, something made Kristen glance at the field’s entry gate more than 200 feet away. At that very moment, there was a man with a walker that was slowly making his way toward the entry line. Kristen knew that walker, because she had used it herself while overcoming a significant personal physical challenge. She also knew the man she gave it to after she won her battle, a man who was moving painstakingly toward the flags. It was her father!
Kristen dashed to his side, tears of joy streaming down her face, and proudly walked beside him all the way into the tent and to a seat with fellow veterans and active duty military.
“I was absolutely shocked that he was walking, and with the walker I gave him,” Kristen said. “He was surprised that I could pick him out of such a large crowd. But when I saw him, even that far away, I instantly knew it was my dad because he has always been my shining beacon of hope.
“It meant the world to me that he had somehow managed to get released from the hospital and found the strength to drive all the way to Fort Irwin so that we could share this most important day in his life,” she added.
When the cheering stopped and the luncheon began, the veterans were addressed by Brigadier General Joseph M. Martin, the charismatic commanding general at Ft. Irwin.
“The foundation for everything we have accomplished in the last four decades was built back when you came home,” Brig. Gen. Martin said. “We understood that regardless of political affiliation, regardless of your beliefs and ideals, we universally support our service members, no matter what, who go out and fight our nation’s wars.
“Today we are very proud to thank you and honor you for your service and your sacrifice and the part each of you played in protecting the freedom of our nation,” he said.
The veterans and their families were especially touched by the comments of keynote speaker, Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient Harold A. Fritz (U.S. Army, Ret), who is the President of the 57 living Medal of Honor recipients.
He was a 1st Lieutenant and platoon leader in Vietnam who led a seven-vehicle armored column along a highway to meet and escort a truck convoy when the column came under intense crossfire. Although seriously wounded himself, he leaped to the top of his burning vehicle to reposition his remaining troops and vehicles. He then ran from vehicle to vehicle in plain sight of enemy gunners to distribute ammunition, direct fire, assist the wounded and provide encouragement to his men. He even manned a machine gun.
When the attackers got within a few feet of his position, Lt. Fritz, armed only with a pistol and bayonet, led a small group of his men in a fierce and daring charge which routed the attackers and inflicted heavy casualties. He refused medical treatment until all of his wounded fellow troops had been treated and evacuated.
The war hero was greeted with a long and loud standing ovation, and when he began to speak a hush came over the tent.
“When you stepped off that plane in Vietnam, whether it was during the monsoon or in a dry season, it struck you—you were going to be in a war that was like no war had been in the past,” he said. “You were going to be in a conflict that many wouldn’t return from.” There were 58,479 American troops killed in the Vietnam War, and today there are still 1,629 men and women in uniform who are unaccounted for.
He also told a story that resonated deeply with the veterans and their families about how a young girl learned about what Vietnam meant to someone who served there.
“One day her grandfather took her up to the attic of her home and took out a dusty footlocker and opened that old trunk. Inside was part of a uniform that was stained with dust—the dust of Vietnam. And he carefully lifted out some of the medals and sat her down and told her about his experience in Vietnam because he felt America was ready, she was ready, it was time to talk about his experience.”
He then asked all the Vietnam veterans to stand as their military branches were individually announced and be recognized. The crowd cheered wildly for several minutes as each group of veterans was recognized.
Later, a Blue Ribbon ceremony was held in which each veteran was pinned by an active duty soldier with a blue ribbon emblazoned with the words, “Who I Am Makes a Difference.” The ribbon was pointed upwards to symbolize that it was time again for the veterans to follow their dreams. The veterans were each given another blue ribbon to honor someone who has made a major difference in their lives.
Many of the veterans and their families wiped tears from their eyes as they received thanks from a grateful nation.
And as the veterans stood at their seats talking to their loved ones, fellow veterans and Army troops, a tall, thin man slowly moved to the table where his loving daughter was standing and applauding.
When he finally made it to Kristen’s side, Jim reached into his pocket, pulled out his second blue ribbon, and pinned his hopes and dreams on his daughter. Then they silently hugged for a long time.
“My dad knows how important the USO was to him in Vietnam, and how important the Bob Hope USO is to our troops of today,” Kristen said. “For me to receive that recognition from him strengthened the special bond we have always had. It meant more to me than I can possibly say. It was one of the highlights of our lives.”
That magical feeling was felt in many different ways by the veterans and their loved ones, who were finally properly thanked and honored for their service and sacrifice in Vietnam.
After nearly half a century, it was time.
Published: April 30, 2015 - Volume 14 - Issue 03