Forty-six years ago, David Ervin was cursed as a “baby-killer,” he said, upon his return home after serving a 1967-68 tour of duty as a gunner on a river patrol boat in the Mekong Delta.
On Saturday, the now gray-haired veteran, 68, and dozens of his brothers in arms were honored and publicly thanked by about 200 people attending the fourth annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day service in downtown Baton Rouge.
The event took place inside the black granite walls of the Louisiana Memorial Plaza located next to the USS Kidd Veterans Museum. The memorial’s walls are engraved with the names of thousands of “sons of Louisiana” from the nation’s wars, including 907 killed in Vietnam.
“I think it’s wonderful — people ain’t forgot — yet,” Ervin said as he watched his two granddaughters, Laylah Rose Ervin, 7, and Madeline Ervin, 9, draw “thank you” in pink chalk on the gray cement wall of the museum. Other visitors drew dozens of similar messages.
“We’re committed to honoring our Vietnam veterans,” said Alejandra “Alex” Juan, executive director of the USS Kidd Museum and an Air Force veteran. “Unlike us today, there were no parades, celebrations or reintegration plans that could help them and their families get back into society. Our goal is to honor them and also educate the public about one of the longest wars in our nation’s history.”
The event’s emcee, Staff Sgt. Denis Ricou, of the Louisiana National Guard, noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
“This event gives us the perfect opportunity to remember the more than 58,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War,” Ricou said. “We all need to do more to help the men and women still suffering the physical and mental wounds from their service in Vietnam.”
Retired Marines Col. Walter Smith related his own story of arriving in the humid jungles of Vietnam in 1965, as a young helicopter pilot along with 2,000 other Marines and 200 helicopters.
“Friendships were formed that last until today,” Smith said.
He described enduring monsoons, mosquitoes, C-rations left over from Korea and how “each day seemed like the previous one.”
As Smith spoke, many veterans in the audience nodded their heads in agreement, nudged each other and smiled at the memories his words evoked.
“The mail was often two to three weeks late, and he often felt forgotten,” Smith said, referring to the younger version of himself during his time in Vietnam.
“What in the world was the point of being in a country where the natives spoke a language he couldn’t even understand? But he continued to do his duty to the best of his ability — and he never felt more alive.”
Smith listed statistics about Vietnam that might not be widely known: 91 percent of Vietnam veterans say they are glad they served; 74 percent said they would serve again even knowing the results; five Americans killed were 16 and the oldest was 62; 1 of every 10 Americans who served there was a casualty; and 75,000 are seriously disabled.
“Our Vietnam veterans ask nothing in return except for respect for serving their country,” Smith said. “We fought and died for each other.”
Al Coburn, 68, served in the Navy from 1966 to 1970, as a flight deck petty officer for A-4 fighter jets supporting the Marines. After the event, as he related his own service and the warm, positive response, his voice thickened with emotion.
“I’ve been to all of these — it’s great,” Coburn said. “When we flew in, we were wearing civilian clothes because so many people were getting treated without respect. My family said they was glad I was home and that was it.”
It’s different now, he said.
“The country has changed and people now are getting more patriotic,” Coburn said.