The welcome home they never got: Vietnam War era veterans honored across James City

Staff Writer

“We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” a chorus of more than 100 Vietnam War-era veterans and their family members spoke in the plush ballroom at the Colonial Heritage clubhouse Monday night.

James City County Supervisor Jim Icenhour stood, waiting.

Icenhour waited for the moment when he would present pins to honor dozens of veterans for their service during a time in America’s history when service members faced public insults for their roles in a reviled foreign war.

“This is the opportunity to give them the welcome home that they didn't get during the war,” Icenhour said before the ceremony to honor fellow veterans.

More than 70 veterans waited for their names to be called by organizer Bill Truax, 74, before they walked to the front of the ballroom to be recognized for their military service in the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Personally, I’d like to say to every one of you, welcome home,” Icenhour said to the crowd. “The welcome you probably didn’t get back then.”

Icenhour reached out with his right hand, stared his comrades in the eyes and thanked them for their service before he dropped a small brass pin into his or her left hand.

“Like most of you, I came home to a less than cordial welcome,” Icenhour said. “Many of us carry scars, some physical some emotional from that time, but times have changed.”

For Icenhour, the experience is deeply personal.

For two years during the Vietnam War, he flew nearly 200 combat missions as a fighter pilot. Once, his plane was shot to bits over hostile territory, he said.

If it hadn’t been for his commanding officer and friends in the service, Icenhour said there was a chance he could have lost his nerve right then.

When he returned to the United States, he didn’t talk much about his service until he ran for public office in James City County.

Icenhour is just one of the many Vietnam War-era veterans who didn’t discuss their service publicly until decades after the war ended.

For Larry Muncy, a Colonial Heritage resident and Navy veteran, it wasn’t until the 1980s that he felt he could talk openly about his time at sea.

At the same banquet table, Richard Woods said he still can’t say much about his service. He worked in Army counterintelligence in Europe in the 1970s, but when he returned to the United States crowds hurled insults at men in uniform.

Truax choked up with tears as he spoke to the crowd of retired soldiers and sailors about a widow to whom he and Icenhour had presented a pin in honor of her late husband.

“We think there are certainly others in the community,” Truax said of the widow. “I’m a little emotional out there because I know the lady.”

Truax said he will continue to seek out other veterans to honor them.

“We may have to go back through the community and see if they’re out there.”

Icenhour softly said “Welcome home” as the event closed.

James City veteran inducted into national hall of fame

At Langley Air Force Base Oct. 30, Kingsmill resident Charles Wynder Sr. was honored after he was inducted into the hall of fame for the National Veterans Golden Age Games — an annual Olympic-like event for veterans.

Wynder, 77, has traveled across the country — from Orono, Maine to Albuquerque, N.M. — to compete against fellow veterans.

After serving for nearly 30 years in the U.S. Army, Ret. Col. Wynder said the events are an opportunity to meet new friends who served and beat them at cycling, swimming and discus throwing.

In nearly 18 years and 15 games, Wynder has collected dozens of gold, silver and bronze medals. Wynder will continue to compete fiercely against friends and fellow veterans, he said, and he looks forward to next year’s games.

Incarcerated vets, ex-military jail guards to be recognized

Superintendent Tony Pham has been at the helm of the Virginia Peninsula’s consolidated jail for about a year, and as Veterans Day neared he realized several of his guards and staffers had come to work for the jail after leaving the military, he said.

He knew he needed to recognize them for their service to the nation and their hard work at the jail, he said.

“On our end, this is more of a recognition ceremony than anything else,” Pham said. “I was just coming in my first year here trying to spitball some ideas in understanding their background and valuing their service to our country.

“I think it’s important for every employer when we do hire our veterans or have veterans in our midst that we recognize the opportunities that we may have to be able to say thank you,” Pham said. “It’s been a lifelong process for me (after) coming to this country in 1975.… we escaped (South Vietnam) on April 19, 1975. We got on one of three planes that left the airport that day.”

To that end, Pham worked with a friend with local Veterans of Foreign Wars post to arrange a banquet on Sunday for his employees.

“There are so many services available to our veterans,” Pham said. “Let’s have a special Veterans Day lunch for them, because they’re going to be working. What a better way to take a break from your long 12-hour shift to break bread with veterans outside of these four walls.”

But all of the veterans at the jail aren’t employed there; some have been charged with crimes and are behind bars at the jail, Pham said.

“I have veterans who made wrong decisions, they end up here,” Pham said. “I thought about not judging them for what they may have allegedly done, but still recognizing the need for the fact that they historically committed to our nation.”

Pham worked with his commissary to develop a Veterans Day goodie basket for the men and women who fought for freedom but lost their right to it.

Families of ex-military inmates can purchase the goodie bag through the commissary this Veterans Day.

Need help?

If you or a family member are a veteran in need of support services, visit the Williamsburg office of the Division of Veterans Service, 203 Ironbound Road in Williamsburg, or call 757-221-1734.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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