Florida event to honor Vietnam veterans will feature Lee Greenwood concert
By EARLE KIMEL | Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. | Published: October 17, 2020
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CHARLOTTE COUNTY (Tribune News Service) — A welcome-home program for Vietnam veterans that was postponed by COVID-19 in March will take place Nov. 16-21 and include volunteers reading the names of the 58,318 soldiers listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall of Southwest Florida in Punta Gorda, and a celebration concert by singer Lee Greenwood at the Charlotte Sports Park.
Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans 2020, a Charlotte County-based nonprofit headed by Vietnam War veteran Bill Akins, had hoped to host Greenwood in concert on March 28, as part of a weekend celebration of National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a holiday created by Congress in 2017 through the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017. The act, which declares March 29 as the holiday, was signed by President Trump on March 28 of that year.
In March, the entire program had been scheduled for Laishley Park in Punta Gorda, which is home to the half-scale replica of the Vietnam War Memorial that was installed in 2016, but Greenwood's concert was moved to Charlotte Sports Park in part to accommodate COVID-19 social distancing protocols.
The program is free for all veterans. There will be an admission charge for the concert at Charlotte Sports Park.
More than 40 volunteers have signed up to read the names of the soldiers who died in combat, a ceremony that will take place over a five-day span at Laishley Park and is projected to take a total of 65 hours and end close to noon on Nov. 20.
"We're going to honor the ones who didn't make it, then start in with the ones that did and hopefully give them something back," Akins said. "They got treated like dirt when they came home."
"Today a guy goes through the airport in a uniform, everybody gives him applause; back then, they got spit at and things thrown at them. It was not a very good scene the way the general public treated the people who were defending them and their right to do that."
Akins spent four years fighting in Vietnam and earned four bronze stars among other commendations, mostly in the role of an artillery forward observer.
"I would go to the front and direct the artillery and air strikes in on the enemy," Akins said. "That particular job had a big bullseye on its back because that's who they wanted to knock, 'cause we were doing a lot of damage to them.
"It was through the grace of God that I did make it back," he added. "That's the only thing I can contribute to it.
"I should have gotten killed on more than one occasion, though my physical injuries were relatively light."
Because Akins served so long, he was able to return home on leave every six months.
"I would have to fight my way through the airports, San Francisco," Akins said. "Get called every name in the book; people would throw bottles of urine.
"It was pretty ugly, and it was something that the GIs and the soldiers, they couldn't understand why they were treated so bad, when they were just doing something that Uncle Sam asked them to do."
To express the anguish Vietnam era veterans can feel, Akins points to the "Thank You For Your Service (A Moment of Truth)" video from the Moments YouTube channel that is also shared on the nonprofit's website welcomehomevietnamvets2020.org/.
That video portrays an encounter at a coffee shop between a Vietnam veteran, a returning current day soldier, a mother and a small boy.
"You see the look on the Vietnam veteran's face through this – and I see it every day in other people – you need to look at that and maybe you can kind of get an idea of the subtle difference between the young veteran and the old veteran."
Once volunteers have read the final name from the replica of the Vietnam War Memorial at Laishley Park, the program designed to honor veterans will commence with an address by U.S. Army Ret. SFC Melvin Morris, a Medal of Honor recipient.
Morris earned the Medal of Honor for his actions on Sept. 17, 1969, while serving as commander of a Special Forces strike force during operations against the enemy near Chi Lang.
He received the medal from President Barack Obama in a March 18, 2014, ceremony in the White House.
At roughly 2 p.m., following Morris' address and a service that will include a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial, Welcome Home Veterans 2020 is hosting a kickoff party at TT's Tiki Bar, located at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel at 33 Tamiami Trail, Punta Gorda.
Performers include James Marvell of Mercy, Butch Gerace of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and country singer-songwriter Bobby G. Rice.
Also scheduled are country rock artist Jack Michael, who started his professional career in Punta Gorda at age 12, and local favorites Mike Riley & The BoogieMen, who have played more than 150 charity concerts in a three-decade span.
Meanwhile, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Charlotte Sports Park, Friends of Army Aviation will offer rides in a UH-1 Huey helicopter.
Those rides are also scheduled to be offered from 9 a.m. to noon on Nov. 21.
A parade, with Morris serving as grand marshal, is scheduled to start at 9 a.m.
After staging at the Port Charlotte Beach Complex, a procession of high school bands, ROTC cadets, military vehicles and flatbeds occupied by floats and veterans will travel down Harbor Boulevard and then Edgewater Drive, to conclude at the William R. Gaines Veteran's Memorial Park, 2488 Edgewater Drive, Port Charlotte.
From 10 to 11 a.m., "Welcome Home Thunder" motorcycle riders will stage at the Old Elks Lodge off of Veterans Boulevard and then ride to the Charlotte County Fairgrounds, near the sports park.
Gates at Charlotte Sports Park will open at 11 a.m. Though veterans will be admitted free, they must preregister at vietnamvets2020.com/. Tickets for all others are $35 at the gate, or $20 if purchased in advance.
Though tickets are general admission, volunteers will direct patrons to seating that is socially distanced according to Florida Phase 3 COVID-19 protocols, with families and some groups allowed to sit together.
In addition to the seating accommodations, multiple sanitation stations and masks will be available, and restrooms will be sanitized at regular intervals.
After a daylong program including entertainment, remembrance ceremonies and a 2 p.m. missing-man formation flyover of vintage Warbirds coordinated by the Florida International Air Show, Greenwood is scheduled to take the stage at 5:30 p.m., followed by a fireworks display.
For Akins, it was important to have Greenwood, whose signature hit "God Bless the USA (Proud to Be An American)" was released in 1984, to set the tone for the Welcome Home.
After the March 28 cancellation, Nov. 21 was the next available date for the Grammy Award-winning artist.
Akins was able to convince Greenwood's agent to set up a backstage meeting in April 2019, when the superstar appeared at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center along with Crystal Gayle.
"I knew we had to have him," Akins said. "Or the whole thing wouldn't work."
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