Elm Tree Post №88 recognizes neighborhood Vietnam veterans.
By Christopher Seamans
U.S. troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often face an appreciative public willing to demonstrate its gratitude through yellow ribbons, handshakes and cheers.
Those returning from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s had a very different experience.
“Coming back, you’d get called names — baby killer,” said Sam Kahuila, an artilleryman who returned from Vietnam in 1966. “I went to a store with my wife, got called baby killer, and I walked out disgusted.”
At a pinning ceremony held Saturday, March 11 at the American Legion Elm Tree Post №88, 1414 E. Palmer St., Fishtown’s Vietnam veterans were recognized for their service decades after returning.
Douglas B. Craig, a retired Marine who is president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) and a sergeant-at-arms with the Elm Tree Post, was the driving force behind the event. He heard about the Vietnam War Commemoration (VWC) program, which was created to show gratitude to America’s seven million living Vietnam veterans, and sought to get the MOAA involved in it.
Craig is a Vietnam veteran as are many of his friends at Elm Tree Post, and he also wanted to do something locally.
The Post’s 98th anniversary dinner presented him with the opportunity to recognize his friends in the organization.
“The Commemorative encourages you to go out and coordinate with another partner and maybe get a bigger group,” Craig explained, “but since these are my guys, I wanted to do it.”
Post Adjutant Tom Callen, a fellow Vietnam veteran, said, “Doug suggested it at one of our meetings a few weeks back. He said we could do it right at the banquet, so we said, ‘Sounds like a great idea, let’s do it.’ ”
The VWC program was founded by the U.S. government in 2012 to, according to its press release, “do what should have been done 50 years ago: thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice.”
Although the program is administered by the Department of Defense, the goal is to empower local organizations to honor members of their own communities.
More than 10,000 community partners have gotten involved in the project, including Temple University ROTC, the Philadelphia VA Hospital, the Philadelphia Veterans Center, and the city’s United States Coast Guard station.
For Craig, there is a personal component to getting involved in the program.
“I’m a Vietnam vet. When I came home, the only people that welcomed me were my parents,” he said. “This is important, especially this many years later. This is the 50th year anniversary of the war and that’s why they’re building this thing up. Finally recognizing the Vietnam veterans with a welcome home, because we didn’t get that when we came home as a group. We were dubbed baby killers and all kinds of things. Vietnam was a very unpopular war and anybody that served in it absorbed that unpopularity. So, this is important, especially to the recipients of this pin.”
Callen, who officiated at the event, agreed about the project’s importance.
“Commemorations like these are very important. Ever since Desert Storm, I’ve been thanked for my service so much, and I appreciate all that. But I can’t help but feel in the back of my head, where was that when we came home? Because we didn’t get it when we came home. And it’s important to recognize all veterans.”
The ceremony itself was emotional, particularly when a special pin was presented to Regina Clark, widow of Francis Clark, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War and the Elm Tree Post’s Commander, who passed away in August 2016.
The tears told only part of the story, though.
Robert Durbin, who returned from Vietnam in 1968, said of being recognized, “It felt good. Very good. When I first came back, it was bad, but lately it’s been better. When I came back, nobody thanked you for your service, but now they do.”
Kahuila, who was also honored, agreed.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s really great. You think about what you went through, and then you came home, and the way they treated you. Being recognized that you really did something, it’s a great, great feeling.”
Craig wants to honor as many of his fellow Vietnam veterans as he can.
“If you know a Vietnam vet who hasn’t been recognized, let me know,” he said, “and I will make arrangements some way, somehow, and they will get the proper recognition they are entitled to.”
More information about the Vietnam War Commemoration program is available at vietnamwar50th.com. Douglas Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Upcoming events at Elm Tree Post №88 include a Fish Fry on Good Friday, April 14 and a pancake breakfast at Applebee’s on Sunday, April 22. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/ElmTreePostNo88/ or call (215) 739–7512.