It’s been a long time coming — decades, in fact — but Utah’s Vietnam veterans were finally welcomed home en masse Sunday in a moving ceremony at the Utah State Capitol.
“I absolutely feel welcome home — finally,” said a beaming Mike Krelo, 67, of Riverton. “When we got home, it wasn’t like it is now, when they welcome the troops. It took this long to realize we’re accepted as vets from that era.”
On Sunday, Krelo was one of more than 300 Vietnam Utah vets to receive a coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
He was 18 and just out of high school in Illinois when he joined the Marines. He served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966.
Two generations of men and a few women took the stage, wearing shirts and ties, ponytails and jeans, or even the dress uniforms of their military branches. From an array of veterans’ advocates and legislators, each heard the words, “Thank you for your service.”
Terry Schow, executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs and a former Special Forces soldier in Vietnam, handed each a coin. “Many of you have never received a thank you,” Schow told the veterans, who drove through heavy snowfall for the 11 a.m. ceremony, where some 200 family members and friends gathered.
Across the Salt Lake Valley, the Taylorsville Veteran Day Parade went on in spite of the snow, honoring Vietnam veterans as well as Korean War veterans. About 100 attended the parade and a program that followed.
Dennis Howland, past state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, unfurled a Department of Defense flag commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Across the bottom of the flag are the words, “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.”
“It’s something that took 45 years or better for some of us to hear,” Howland said.
Two former KSL employees — commentator Don Gale and news anchor Dick Nourse, both veterans — spoke at the program. Gale talked about serving with men from throughout the country, and credited America’s economic success to veterans.
Nourse’s comments were unscripted; former colleague Sterling Poulson, of KUTV, saw him in the audience and called him to come to the stand. “You who have put lives on the line should never have to worry about anything again — especially health care,” Nourse said.
The Utah Department of Veterans Affairs also honored five men who have worked for veterans, including 95-year-old P.S. “Tuck” Marcantonio, a World War II veteran who has played taps at more than 3,000 military funerals.
Marcantonio said he got his first bugle at age 13 in 1929, and played taps for the last time at a funeral on Veterans Day 2011.
The four others honored were: Dale Brockbank, a Vietnam veteran and U.S. Department of Labor veterans representative; Frank Maughan, a Vietnam veteran and president of the Utah chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart; Jim Kopecky, a Vietnam veteran and former director of the Veterans Upward Bound at Weber State University; and Rex Bass, a World War II veteran active in the American Legion and who has served in the honor guard at hundreds of military funerals.
Utahns in Vietnam
Utah sent more than its share of soldiers to the Vietnam War, and lost 388 of them in combat. Their names are inscribed on the Vietnam War memorial west of the Utah State Capitol.
According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, 27,910 of the state’s male residents 16 and over — 8.6 percent — served in Vietnam in 1970. That put Utah in fifth place among the states in its share of residents serving.
The remains of 12 Utah residents who were missing in action were recovered over a 30-year period. The remains of 14 others, killed in action or presumed dead, have never been recovered.
When, exactly, did the Vietnam War begin?
The United States had advisers and even troops in Vietnam before 1962, but Congress directed, via the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, that the 50th-anniversary observance would begin in 2012.