DECATUR, Ill. – As he looked over the crowd of Vietnam War veterans and their families, Pat McDaniel could only reflect on how far he and other veterans have come since the war that ended more than 40 years ago.
“After all these years, we are finally getting the recognition for our military service that we did not get when we first returned to our nation's shores those many years ago, and I am thankful for that,” said McDaniel, a Decatur city council member who served in the Army from 1968 to 1971. “We truly have come a long way.”
Hundreds of men and women who endured the hardships of the divisive conflict gathered together Saturday afternoon at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel to share memories, meet new friends and listen to speakers who honored them and their fallen comrades at the second Vietnam Era Veterans Recognition day.
McDaniel, who served 101st Airborne Division from 1969 to 1970 as military intelligence as well as a prisoner of war interrogator, regaled the crowd with stories about his time in Vietnam, from the brutality of the violence to the debilitating boredom and lack of basic goods.
One of the hardest challenges was what came after the war for veterans, as they returned to a divided nation that did not necessarily open its arms to those who came back.
“While many of us may have had mixed emotions ... really, we were only doing our duty to our country,” McDaniel said.
Away from the main podium where McDaniel spoke and the veterans stood in attendance was a table full of mementos from the war, including badges, photographs and even a Vietnamese suitcase.
The suitcase belongs to Richard Erwin Sr., a Decatur native who served as a radio operator in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966, who said he has kept the suitcase and a variety of items with the idea that someday they may be appreciated and of interest to people. He thought about his own time in Vietnam, which including riding in a faulty helicopter whose rotor was held together by duct tape.
Erwin said he appreciated the event as a chance to honor those who served and to raise awareness for the treatment of veterans during and after the war.
“They don't realize how much a lot of us had to go through while we were over there,” he said.
It was not just those in attendance who were honored though.
David Griffin, who served in Vietnam with the Army from 1968 to 1969, was excited for the opportunity to see old friends and to reflect on their time together – but Griffin said he did not come to Saturday's event for himself.
“I came for the guys who couldn't make it, who didn't make it back from overseas,” he said.
Though he did not have an official headcount; Dave Freyling, chairman of the Veteran’s Assistance Commission of Macon County, said they had enough tables set up for about 400 people, and it looked as though they would be near capacity.
The past two events have been the brainchild of Bruce Stephens, who served in the Navy from 1970 to 1974. While he stayed stateside during the war, Stephens said he knew too many friends who died in Vietnam and wanted to find a way to honor them and those who came back from service.
“There never has been anything to honor these people, so we came together to put this together to say 'thank you' to those who served,” Stephens said.
While Stephens, Freyling and others are excited to continue the event in the future, they acknowledged a need for more sponsors to help fund the event. The Vietnam Era Veterans Recognition Committee is expected to meet in the next month to start the fundraising for next year's event. It has become something of a self-described obsession for Stephens, who said he wants the event to continue for a long time.