Welcome home

BURNHAM – Grief and gratitude united the crowd who gathered Saturday for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans memorial at the Beech Street circle in Burnham.

“It is a weekend we keep a promise to never forget,” said David Bower, master of ceremonies and director of Clinton County Veterans Affairs.

A trio of granite walls are engraved with the names of 17 Vietnam veterans and one Iraqi War veteran, all of whom died in service to the United States.

“We have prospered because we always have citizens willing to answer the call and serve. Veterans have made our country secure,” said Brittany Etters, a Penn State sophomore who designed the memorial.

She urged the audience to “come honor the heroes and remember the ones who gave us freedom. We have much to be thankful for.”

The memorial has been several years in the making and has involved many communities and countless volunteers, all of whom worked together for one common goal.

“This memorial helps ensure they will never be forgotten,” Fred Elliott, past vice president of the Vietnam Veterans of America National Council, said of the soldiers listed on it.

The black granite walls of the memorial are flanked with flags representing America, Pennsylvania and the plight of soldiers still missing in action.

“See that Pennsylvania flag? It looks a little tattered, doesn’t it,” asked Dennis Drass, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 791. “That’s because it flew over LZ (landing zone) Schuyler in Vietnam. It served Pennsylvania and this nation well, as did all veterans.”

In Washington, D.C., the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly called “The Wall,” lists 58,479 names – those who died in the war and who have been identified, Drass said. There still are 1,654 who are missing.

“This nation needs to get on the Veterans Administration to get off their duff (and) to do what they promised,” Drass said.

His impassioned plea invoked an “Amen!” from a woman in the audience and a round of applause.

Millions served in the war and thousands never came home. Those who did were greeted with hostility and hatred from their own countrymen.

“This mess should never have happened,” Drass said, “but it did, and veterans have to live with it.”

He is among those who do.

“I’m sad and filled with guilt. They didn’t come home. I did,” he said. “I’m also filled with anger over the lives wasted.”

When Drass returned from Vietnam, he was placed on temporary duty and stationed near Pittsburgh. He attended military funerals in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio and was devastated at watching families – especially mothers – deal with the loss of their sons, brothers and husbands.

“With all of that grief, that pain and that heartache, the nation screams and screams and screams in protest of a war. They were taking it out on the veterans who were just doing a job,” Drass said. “Vietnam veterans were treated horribly.”

Memorials such as the one now in Burnham and the national one in D.C. help in the healing process, he said.

The new memorial should be considered “hallowed ground,” said Pastor Michael Bailey. “It has been made hallowed by those who gave the supreme sacrifice.”

During the dedication ceremony, wreaths of red, white and blue ribbons were carried to the monument by members of each soldier’s family and a demonstration was made of a traditional field cross, which involves the placing of a soldier’s boots, rifle and dog tags. A flag and a red rose also were added to the display.

For Ida Wagner and her family, the ceremony brought plenty of emotion. Her younger brother, Joseph Lester Hockenberry, was one of the veterans recognized.

She was “sorry and sad” to have to walk with the wreath to the monument. Joseph was just 15 when he managed to enlist in the Army, she said.

“Our mother didn’t want to let him go,” Wagner said, but he insisted that she switch his birth certificate.

Hockenberry served in the Korean War and was a platoon sergeant in Vietnam. He was 33 when he was killed in action.

“It breaks your heart,” said Pauline Page, Ida’s niece.

Pauline, her husband Don and their 19-year-old daughter, Vanessa, accompanied Ida to lay the wreath.

“I’m thankful to see there’s other people here” who support the late veterans and their families, Vanessa said. “Their lives aren’t for nothing.”

Musicians sang patriotic songs and played Taps on bagpipes and bugle while Old Glory fluttered over the monument.

“Welcome home, veterans,” Drass said. “Welcome home.”