VIRGINIA BEACH---Fred Behrens is decades removed from when he was a 23-year-old helicopter pilot in Vietnam, but the war is still with him.
His deep tan doesn't hide the many scars from shrapnel and bullet wounds, and on his right wrist is a metal MIA bracelet honoring Army Sgt. James A. Champion, who remains missing from the April 1971 battle in which Behrens was wounded.
In the years since, life for the decorated veteran of the Army's 101st Airborne has included continual medical treatments for wounds that have left him permanently disabled.
But Tuesday evening, Behrens was smiling. The Powhatan County resident was proudly showing his collection of military weapons, familiar to scores of fellow Vietnam War vets and others in the hallway of Virginia Beach Convention Center.
He was one of more than 500 veterans, family members and supporters who came to honor those who served a half-century ago.
With speeches, patriotic music and video tributes, the event was linked to a national commemoration begun two years ago for the 50th anniversary of the war that involved U.S. combat troops from 1964 to 1973. More than 58,000 Americans were killed, including more than 1,300 from Virginia. Millions of Vietnamese, military and civilian, also died in the conflict.
"It's a prime time for this to happen," Behrens said. "It's great to see this resurgence of patriotism."
The commemoration is meant to correct the lack of ceremony and respect shown to Vietnam vets who returned after their combat tours to a country deeply divided over the conflict.
"For all of our Vietnam veterans, hopefully you realize that you are surrounded by people who honor and appreciate what you have done for our country," said retired Vice Adm. James McArthur Jr., who led the ceremony. "We hope you walk away with an even greater sense of pride and dignity for your service to our nation."
The event was organized by the office of U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, who lauded the veterans along with Joe Galloway, a decorated war correspondent and author of the book "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young."
Rigell, who was a boy during the war and later spent several years in the Marine Corps reserves, told the veterans: "I never got activated, and I certainly never got shot at. And I've never quite figured out the answer to the question of why providence calls upon some to give so much, including the ultimate sacrifice."
This is the time to honor those who served in the war, the Virginia Beach Republican said.
"I know we are a freer people because you were willing to go."