STEUBENVILLE - "Welcome home" may not have been said to returning Vietnam War veterans 40 years ago but "thank you" was said many times Saturday during a Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony at the Sandra and Louis Berkman Amphitheater at Historic Fort Steuben.
Dozens of veterans and family members listened to guest speaker Jack L. Ernest of Richmond, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
The event was organized by AMVETS Post 275 to recognize Vietnam Veterans Day.
REMEMBERING — Jack L. Ernest of Richmond, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, was the guest speaker Saturday at a Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony at the Sandra and Louis Berkman Amphitheater at Historic Fort Steuben. Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Vietnam Veterans Day was celebrated on March 30 in Ohio.
"Finally, Vietnam veterans are being recognized for the service we gave," Ernest said. "We left a lot of good men in that place called Vietnam. We sit here today and look at the faces of these warriors ... these heroes ... these men who were barely teenagers who answered the call of the country and went to a place they barely knew anything about."
He said the men and women at the time were raised in an era that taught patriotism.
Ernest said, "50 years have come and gone since that fateful mission that started one of our longest and most challenging wars. Through more than a decade of conflict that tested and eventually tore our country apart, the service and commitment of our men and women in uniform stood true. They didn't run. They didn't bow to the enemy. We are here to honor a generation of veterans so deserving of our support and deserving of our respect."
He said the men and women fought hour after hour, day after day and night after long night.
"Vietnam veterans, I'm here to tell you we won. We didn't lose the war in Vietnam. We won every battle, not some. Every hill, every river, every bridge placed in front of us, our commanders told us to take it and we took it. If someone considers that losing, then they need to get a bit of education," Ernest said.
"Eleven long years of combat left an indelible mark on our generation as well as our country. Many of us returned with shrapnel imbedded in our bodies. Scars on the outside and scars on the inside to be carried for the rest of our lives," he said.
Ernest said those serving in combat saw things that no human should see in a lifetime.
"Then to be told the things we were suffering from simply didn't exist, things such as (post traumatic stress disorder) and Agent Orange that is still racking our bodies each and every day. More than 58,000 brave men and women gave their lives in this place called Vietnam. Yet, when many of these brave men and women returned home they were spat upon, demonized and literally had garbage thrown upon them. We were warned not to go off base in our uniforms because we would most likely be attacked," he said.
"We were called murderers, rapists and baby killers." he said.
He said Vietnam War veterans were denied jobs and even car insurance because they were considered a high risk.
"Even after all that we have endured - we have a legacy," he told the crowd.
He said Vietnam War veterans have stood by other veterans from the Korean War to the Gulf War.
"As long as Vietnam veterans are still alive, no war shall ever be forgotten and neither will the brave men and women who fight them," he said. "We have suffered more than any other group of military personnel. But we still fight on."
Ernest then asked all Vietnam War veterans to stand.
"We stand before you today, the Vietnam veterans. I am very proud to be a Vietnam veteran. I wear this uniform with pride and my body bears the scars that I received fighting along side of some of this country's greatest warriors ... the Vietnam veterans.
"I want to conclude with this. Death occurs when the soul departs the body, after which the body begins to decompose. So it is with a nation. Patriotism is the soul of a nation. It is what keeps a nation alive. When patriotism dies and when a nation loses its love, loyalty and respect for its people, the nation dies and begins to decompose. Welcome home brothers ... welcome home Vietnam veterans."
Ernest graduated from Wellsburg High School, class of 1964, and joined the Marines in July 1965. He served 13 months in Vietnam from 1966 through 1967. He was one of two Marines randomly chosen out of a 1,200-man battalion to attend an intensive school to learn the Vietnamese language. After the schooling. he returned to Vietnam where he served as a battalion translator-interrogator-interpreter, gaining valuable information from captured enemy prisoners right on the battlefield.
Ernest was wounded in hand-to-hand combat in July 1967 and received the Purple Heart.
He was named the Jefferson County Veteran of the Year in 2007 and was inducted in November into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame after being nominated by the AMVETS Post 275.