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USS Alabama ceremony among many events marking National Vietnam War Veterans Day

By LAWRENCE SPECKER | al.com | Published: March 29, 2021

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — For the first time ever, veterans gathered just after sunrise Monday morning at USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park to observe National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

Several dozen onlookers saluted as flags at the park’s Vietnam memorial area were lowered to half-staff by members of the Marine Corps League and a bugler played “Taps.” Featured speaker retired Col. Pat Downing touched on his own experience, saying April would mark 51 years since his return from his second tour of duty.

“51 years,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of Vietnam … I think Vietnam left an indelible mark on us all that will probably be with us the rest of our lives.

“We’re here to honor the 1,211 Vietnam veterans on this wall behind me,” Downing said, referring to a monument bearing the names of Alabamians who lost their lives in the war. “I don’t know how we can thank them for what they did, because some of us Vietnam veterans standing here right now would not be here if it were not for some of those precious ones whose names are forever etched on that black granite wall. But maybe by being here today they will know it, and they will appreciate it.”

Federal efforts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war go back at least to 2007, to language in a defense authorization bill signed by President George W. Bush. His successor, President Barack Obama, formally opened a 13-year drive in 2012 to commemorate the anniversary, and in 2017 President Donald Trump issued a proclamation designating March 29 of each year as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

Lou Lartigue, president of the South Alabama Veterans Council and a primary organizer of Monday’s event, said that since 2017 the day has mostly been observed by veterans organzations at their posts. The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted plans to hold a public ceremony at the park in 2020.

A variety of historical events can be used to define the beginning and end of the war; Lartigue said 50th anniversary ceremonies will continue into 2025, because 1975 was the year Saigon fell.

“It’s the 29th of March mainly because that was the day that we pulled the last combat troops out of Vietnam and it was the day when we got our prisoners of war back, in 1973,” Lartigue said.

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