Pins express belated gratitude to Vietnam-era veterans

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

Forgotten, ignored, and ridiculed. Little or no acknowledgement of often-difficult, sometimes horrifying, military service.

That’s what Georgia Commissioner of Veterans Service Mike Roby said many Vietnam War-era veterans got when their military service was over.

Many of the Vietnam War-era veterans from Henry County pause on the stage of the First Baptist Church in Locust Grove while the audience of friends and family members gratefully applaud along with military service songs. Georgia Commissioner of Veterans Service Mike Roby, front row, fifth from left, had just presented a Georgia Certificate of Honor and the Defense Department’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Lapel Pin to each of almost 50 veterans in attendance. Special photo

For many of Henry County’s own Vietnam veterans, that changed on Sunday. A Certificate and Pin Ceremony held at First Baptist Church of Locust Grove recognized their honorable service.

“In life, there is never a wrong time nor is it ever too late to say, ‘thank you,’” Roby said in remarks at the ceremony. “So, today it is 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.”

“You and your fellow 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 – this was done by your fellow Americans.”

The focus of the ceremony was the presentation of 43 Georgia Certificates of Honor, signed by Roby and Gov. Nathan Deal, and 47 Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Lapel Pins from the U.S. Defense Department.

There are an estimated 234,000 Vietnam veterans living in Georgia, according to Veterans Administration statistical data. As of the beginning of this month, the Georgia Department of Veterans Service had issued 14,270 state Certificates of Honor, many through the 206 Certificate and Pin Ceremonies the department has arranged since March 2015.

Although they acknowledge that many Vietnam veterans faced hostility, ridicule or being ignored, three Henry County veterans at the ceremony said that such ugliness was not their own experience.

“I’d encounter it every once in a while, like while in uniform and out shopping, there’d be something like a rude comment or a generally hostile attitude,’” said Sgt. 1st Class Leonard De Wolfe, U.S. Army-Ret., who served from 1957 to 1978 chiefly as a computer and systems programmer, and later on funeral details, on bases in Africa, New Jersey, Arizona and Fort McPherson in East Point.

“But that kind of thing was very rare, that I encountered. It did happen, though, right here in Georgia. It was in the news all the time. When I would encounter it, I just wouldn’t let it affect me. I’d either ignore them or brush them off and move on.” But, he said he can understand why it would bother others who served so valiantly.

His wife, Pfc. Judy A. De Wolfe, U.S. Army-Ret., also served in the Vietnam War era, in 1960-62. The Stockbridge couple picked up their certificates and pins together.

Leonard De Wolfe said the ceremony certainly had an emotional impact. “There was emotion going on, for all of us. There were family members who’d been lost, and many of us remembered our buddies who didn’t make it.”

He also said he and his wife are grateful to the state and the host church that the ceremony was hosted and the stirring words were spoken, “because I know there are many who just need this. But, well, I’ve got to be honest, we can’t help but feel it’s all a gesture that’s too little, too late. Grateful, yes, but, why so long overdue?”

Judy De Wolfe said the ceremony was a blessing, and she felt “exceptionally proud for all the service people who deserved it. It’s long overdue. I feel fortunate for my husband and myself, and grateful for all these Vietnam veterans who have not been justly thanked for their tour and their sacrifice.”

Radioman 1st Class Sammy Brown, U.S. Navy-Ret., who served 1969-73 at a naval base in Spain, “fixing radios and fighting the war with a teletype machine,” said he also did not notice poor treatment upon his return to his native Locust Grove.

“People back home outside my family didn’t make much of a fuss when I returned home,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I missed Spain, I missed my friends there.”

So Brown decided to start over again, and got involved in a volunteer fire department in Locust Grove in what would become the first Henry County Fire Department. That led to an exciting job putting out forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service, from which he retired in 2004 after 26 years.

“The ceremony was real special,” he said. “It brought back a lot of memories. I was just lucky. I had a real good tour of duty, that then led to a fun job that’s been wonderful. It’s been an exciting life so far. I’m grateful.”