Honoring Fishtown heroes’ service and sacrifice

Elm Tree Post №88 re­cog­nizes neigh­bor­hood Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans.

Service and sacrifice: Vietnam veterans who were honored at Elm Tree Post №88’s anniversary banquet stand together after receiving pins.

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 evcraig552@gmail.com. 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.