As Pittsfield prepares for National Vietnam Veterans Day, message still 'welcome home' for vets
PITTSFIELD — A ceremony in downtown Pittsfield will soon mark the third year the nation has officially recognized military service in Vietnam — 46 years after combat troops left that country.
The message today remains one veterans didn't hear in the 1970s: Welcome home.
On Saturday, veterans from Berkshire County, accompanied by an honor guard, will march to Park Square to observe National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a date fixed on the calendar by a 2017 law.
John Harding, of Pittsfield, who served with the Marines from 1963 to 1966, says the observance means a lot.
"When I see the people gathered, I remember that years ago, we couldn't have one of these things," Harding said from the office of Chapter 65 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, on First Street. "It's a lot different now. It was horrible when we got home."
John Herrera, director of veterans services for Pittsfield and five county towns, said that while veterans of more recent wars generally received praise on their return, that wasn't the case at the end of the long, divisive war in Vietnam.
"There's still that sting, that stigma. It's still very evident," Herrera said. "I try to make them feel as welcomed home as I possibly can. They still need to feel welcome."
The date set by the National Vietnam Veterans Recognition Act is March 29, the day in 1973 that the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam.
Events are held near that date around the country, including one March 28 at the VA Boston Healthcare System in Jamaica Plain.
And in Pittsfield, at 10 a.m. Saturday. The ceremony will include an opening prayer, remarks by Mayor Linda Tyer and what's known as the "echo" — a reading of the names of the 27 Berkshire County residents killed in service in Vietnam.
Though presidents since Richard Nixon have issued annual proclamations marking March 29, it took the 2017 law, signed by President Donald Trump, to put the ceremony permanently on the federal calendar.
"They still feel like the stepchild," Herrera said of Vietnam veterans. "We have to do all we can."
The local chapter of the veterans group continues to reach out to people who served in Vietnam.
The chapter, at 99 First St., is named for James E. Callahan, a former Army medic who died in a local motorcycle crash in 2008. A photo of Callahan providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a wounded soldier appeared in Time magazine.
Callahan received the Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam. A bridge on Hubbard Avenue that crosses the East Branch of the Housatonic River was renamed in his honor in 2009.
Callahan was a life member and former president of Chapter 65, which was founded in the early 1980s. Its current president is Fran Tremblay.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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