Membership Notes, May/June 2013
“Welcome Home” In Longview
BY DAVID KOWALSKI
For the past several years, members of Chapter 987 in Longview, Texas, have spent much of their time at local airports extending a warm “welcome home” to veterans returning from combat in Afghanistan. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the young veterans inspired chapter members to organize a special event to extend a “welcome home”one that they never receivedto their fellow Vietnam veterans.
It all began with chapter member Dan “Gunny” Whyte. He tried to be a part of every welcoming group that met arriving planes. On one occasion, television reporter and former Navy SEAL Bob Hallmark was covering one of the homecomings and interviewed Whyte. After the interview Whyte lamented that Vietnam veterans still had not received their own welcome home.
Over the next few months a plan emerged that a welcome-home event should be organized and that Hallmark should take the lead. Chapter member Ron Frey was also recruited to keep Hallmark focused. In late 2012 Hallmark addressed a Chapter 987 meeting to outline his plan for organizing and hosting Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home. At that meeting, Army veteran Dick Jurkowski and his Air Force veteran wife Gail immediately volunteered to help with the project.
Gail Jurkowski crocheted several throw blankets with military themes. One had a Vietnam Service Ribbon motif; another, the National Defense Service Ribbon; and a third depicted the Purple Heart. She offered them for auction to the membership and ended up handing over more than thirteen hundred dollars to Hallmark. With that initial donation, the Longview Exhibit Center was booked for the event, and planning shifted into high gear.
Hallmark and Frey hit the pavement and began soliciting financial support from the community. Rodney Blackwell, with an organization named Patriot Events and the keeper of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, joined the planning group and offered full supportincluding preparing and serving the meal, providing volunteers, and bringing The Traveling Wall at no charge. “Big” Mike Eubank, with the Patriot Guard Riders, also joined the planning group and promised full volunteer coverage from guarding The Wall at night to helping with parking and crowd control.
Over the next few months the group met regularly to plan and work out details. They found that the community atmosphere had changed considerably since the dark days of the Vietnam War: More than twelve thousand dollars was donated to support the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home.
On February 16, in remembrance of the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home event became a reality at the Longview Exhibit Center at the Gregg County Fairgrounds.
In a dignified special program, the colors were presented by an honor guard of active duty members of each branch of the service. The respect that the young soldiers showed the old warriors was particularly moving. Special recognition speeches were made that honored the branches of service and their veterans for their role in Vietnam.
U.S. Congressman Louie Gohmert spoke at the event and thanked veterans for their service. Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt declared the day “Vietnam Veterans Day.” State Representative David Simpson took the podium to thank veterans for their sacrifices and service.
Combat photographer Bob Spangler displayed photos from Vietnam. The Traveling Wall was on display outside the exposition center.
Veterans greeted each other as brothers. As sixties music played, many talked about old times with men they had not seen in many years. A few saw each other for the first time since “returning to the World.”
Two former Green Berets, Dick Jurkowski from Texas and Diego Mendiola from Guam, formed a particularly strong bond when they realized that they had been assigned to the same unit, at the same time, at the same place, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Nearly a thousand people attended. Vietnam veterans from as far away as Michigan, Ohio, and Guam enjoyed the camaraderie and the food provided by local sponsors. The event was such a success that the Longview veterans are now considering organizing and hosting a national event.
Contact Chapter 987’s Dick Jurkowski at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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