SALT LAKE CITY—Vietnam was not a popular war and many of those who served still feel the pain of rejection. However, the nation took a small step forward to healing by declaring March 29, National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
“We got the short end of everything when we came home,” said Dennis Howland, Utah State Council President Vietnam Veterans of America. “Everything we’ve gotten we’ve had to get on our own.”
March 29, 1973, was when the last combat unit left Vietnam, Howland said. Utah already adopted the day in 2013 and there had been a push to get it passed nationally so he said it was nice to see that come to pass.
“We’d like a day that honors all who served,” he said. “Other wars have a day. There were 9 million people who served in that war, both men and women. There were more than 7,000 women. We want to honor all of them and those lost. Some suffer invisible effects of the war like PTSD and agent orange.”
There was a celebration held last Wednesday at the State Capitol to commemorate the day.
“It means a lot,” said Kent Boam, a Kaysville resident who served in the Air Force. “We weren’t recognized at all like they do now. I still don’t talk about how we were treated. They laid a wreath for the Utah people. It was really nice but I had to walk away when they played Taps – too many memories when I hear it.”
Boam served from 1969 to 1970. “I was 22 at the time,” he said. “I wasn’t a typical Air Force guy. I was in the field a lot. I saw a lot of death, body bags on both sides. I saw a lot of action but I don’t really like to talk about it. It wasn’t a pretty war.”
He said when they flew back they were in their fatigues but they were told to change into civilian clothes before they arrived. “That’s the recognition we got. Just sweep it under the rug. No homecomings like now. It still gets to me when I go to the airport.”
Ken Bissenden, who served in the Army, said he had mixed feelings about the day. “There is a tendency to hide in the shadows because it was such an unpopular war,” he said. “We find it hard to get people to come out and join us. This helps those who are still hiding in the shadows.”
Bissenden said he went from being a kid to immediately becoming a man. “I was thrown into battle when I first got there,” he said. “We were doing clean up after the Tet Offensive but they walked us right smack into the middle of combat. It was a three-day battle. I was shaking in my boots. I grew up real fast. I didn’t know anybody yet, I just took orders and kept my head down.”
He said the jets were so close he could see the rivets. “You know then you’re smack in the middle of something. The shells were close enough that you were going to catch it with one mistake.”
For years after he came back, Bissenden said he wanted to forget everything about it but about 12 years ago someone contacted him about a reunion and it “mushroomed” from there. “I found the Vietnam Veterans of America,” he said. “Dennis is not the kind of guy you forget. He dragged me into it.”
Mike Liptot served mostly near Saigon. “I was so blessed to serve as early as I did, others who served later saw a lot more action,” he said. “There’s been several times that I watch Vietnam War history shows, etc. and I have tell you I can tear up. I feel angry when I watch some of the demonstrations.”
Liptot said he’s never hidden the fact he participated in the war. “I’m proud to say I served in Vietnam,” he said. “Occasionally I get a comment, but I was in the service. I got orders and I followed them. I didn’t shirk it. My job was to save lives. When I was released I was strongly advised not to wear my uniform home – that hurt. I was proud to wear it.”