KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – Those who served the nation were honored in three pinning ceremonies in Northeast Tennessee.
U.S. Congresswoman Diana Harshbarger presented Vietnam War veterans with 50th Year Anniversary pins and certificates at the ceremonies. The pins commemorate the 50 years since the first National Vietnam Veterans Day, which is observed on March 29.
The ceremonies were held in Elizabethton, Kingsport and Bristol, Tennessee. Hundreds of veterans were honored at the events.
Local Vietnam veterans say the ceremonies were held in sharp contrast to the welcome they received upon first returning from the war.
“When we came home, we weren’t treated very well,” said Harold Kinleyegan, an Army veteran and Kingsport native. “We (were) kind of ignored. We were more or less abused. It wasn’t received very well at home.”
“So many hundred thousand people went to Canada, they went everywhere just to dodge the draft, and it’s time that we are getting recognized,” said Army veteran and Elizabethton native Roger Smith. “There was a lot of turmoil that went on in the 60s and I mean a lot that people don’t realize.”
Harshbarger said the “thank you” and “welcome home” were decades in the making.
“We want to give you that proper welcome home,” Harshbarger said. “We want you to know you are valued for your service, and it wasn’t any fault of your own that you were there, and we want to thank you for taking up that mantle and protecting our country.”
Several of the veterans reflected on the circumstances that led to their deployment in Vietnam.
“What we went through was not of our making,” said Kinleyegan. “At that time, we were drafted, and we had no choice but to go. We were blamed more or less for the war. It wasn’t the politicians that were blamed, it was us. And people took it out on us when we came home.”
Decades later, local veterans still remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as those who paid it after their return.
“Agent orange, it was a terrible thing,” said James Spires, a Navy veteran from Bristol. “You didn’t die there with it. You brought it home and died later. My brother, who was with me over in ‘Nam, he contracted ‘Agent Orange’ and it took almost 40 years to kill him.”
Harshbarger said it was important to honor those veterans while their stories are still being told.
“When those gentlemen and women pass away, it’s like a library closes, and you’ll never get those stories, and every time I do a pinning, I have those little veterans come up and whisper a little story,” said Harshbarger. “Some of them are so heartfelt that they have tears in their eyes.”
According to Harshbarger, more than 1,500 veterans have signed up to be honored as of Monday. She told News Channel 11 that she will continue to participate in pinning ceremonies through the end of the year and longer. Veterans hoping to be commemorated can fill out a form on Harshbarger’s website.