Eighty-seven Vietnam veterans gathered Friday at the Performing Arts Center in Flemington to receive certificates of honor signed by Gov. Nathan Deal as part of Georgia’s 50th anniversary commemoration of that war.
The ceremony was organized by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 789 in Hinesville.
Since March 2015, more than 200 such ceremonies have taken place across Georgia, according to Brian Zeringue, projects manager for the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, which distributes the certificates. They have given out more than 14,000 certificates and 11,000 lapel pins that say "Vietnam War Veteran," according to Zeringue.
The event included poster boards featuring a timeline of the war and display tables with photos of local Vietnam veterans.
The ceremony included a color guard and a rendition of the National Anthem by Latrese Carter. And, even before the ceremony started, Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. Townley Hedrick challenged the ceremony’s main organizer, Adna Chaffee, a retired sergeant major and Vietnam veteran, to a pushup challenge on stage.
Cheers and applause erupted from the audience as Chaffee proved he can still keep up with the newest generation of soldiers.
"This is a much desired honor to our veterans of Vietnam," Paul Hawkins, mayor pro-tem for the city of Flemington, told the audience. "This is especially true for so many veterans who were never properly thanked when they returned home."
The Georgia Department of Veterans Services, according to its Commissioner Mike Roby, worked in partnership with the governor’s office to create the Vietnam War certificate of honor program.
He said the goal was to "show appreciation and gratitude for your military service and your personal sacrifice to our nation."
"In life there’s never a wrong time nor is it ever too late to say thank you. So today it’s an honor for me to stand here before you to help the State of Georgia honor you and your fellow Vietnam veterans who served our country when called upon to do so some four decades ago," Roby said.
After going to war and putting their lives on the line, Roby said that Vietnam veterans "were in far too many cases never given a simple but important acknowledgement for your military service. Instead, many of you were forgotten, ignored, and ridiculed. And what made this even worse, it was done by your fellow Americans."
The United States has learned from its mistakes and now treats "all those who serve with the respect and gratitude that they are due," he said. "But if we remember those serving today, we must never forget those who serve before. And we must continue to strive to correct the wrongs of the past and always seek to do better."
"Today we say a loud thank you to you and your Vietnam brethren. To each of you here today, welcome home," Roby added.
The Georgia Department of Veterans Service hopes to eventually recognize every one of the 234,000 Vietnam veterans living in Georgia with a certificate, Roby said.
Georgia State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, also a Vietnam veteran, read the proclamation by Gov. Deal
"Whereas due to the controversial nature of the 11-year conflict, many returning veterans of Vietnam did not receive the respect and gratitude they deserve for serving in our nation’s armed forces," Williams read. "And whereas the more than 234,500 Vietnam Veterans living in Georgia today are part of a generation who put their personal lives on hold and answered the call to duty under a most tumultuous time in America’s history."
The proclamation also stated, "And whereas Georgia’s Vietnam veterans are to be highly commended for their courage, bravery, devotion to duty and sacrifice in a fight for peace and democracy," he said. "And whereas it is imperative that we remember and appreciate these Georgians with grateful hearts for their contributions and sacrifices while wearing the uniform of the United States armed forces during the Vietnam War."
After the proclamation was read, veterans lined up and were called up one by one to receive their certificates and be pinned before family and friends.
The event is important for these veterans, Roby said after the ceremony, because "these are our heroes. They paved the way for our current generation of soldiers. They never got the recognition that they deserve so it’s very important that we give them that. It’s long overdue."
Roby said that they will continue to give out certificates as long as they can to try to reach every Vietnam veteran in Georgia.
Vietnam veterans who were not able to attend the ceremony but would like r certificate may contact Adna Chaffee at 912-369-5378.