Vietnam Veterans of America
The call came to VVA national headquarters on a Tuesday in early November: USAA, the big, military-and-veteran-friendly insurance company, wanted a VVA member to join three other Nam vets to be honored on Sunday during the first quarter of the Washington-Minnesota NFL game at FedEx Field outside D.C.
I accepted the offer in a Saigon minute.
USAA is the official Military Appreciation sponsor for six NFL teams, including my home team. That Sunday, November 17, would be its Salute to Service event. That meant there would be lots of active-duty personnel at the game, coaches would be wearing special olive drab jackets and hats, and players would be sporting o.d. socks. And four Vietnam vets would walk on the field and be recognized for their service.
We were allowed a plus-one and I chose the biggest NFL fan in my family, my daughter Cara, whose father took her to her first Skins game when she was in kindergarten. We were told to be at the gate at 11:00 when it opened. We arrived early, in time to chat with three active-duty troops sitting in a Humvee just outside the gate, and thank them for their service.
We then made our way to the USAA suite, where we were warmly greeted and escorted to the sidelines to take in the warm-ups around noon. The Skins people told us—former Army Maj. Gen. Donald Hilbert, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James King, and myself, Army Spec. 5 Marc Leepson—we would go on the field right after the second time out. So we watched the kickoff from the sidelines, then saw the home team score on its first possession (followed by a time out), and then the Vikes came back and scored.
“You go on right after the extra point,” the Skins guy told us.
We marched onto the field near the hash mark at about the twenty-five-yard line. We heard our names called out by the public address announcer and took in the applause of more than 60,000 fans. It was a surreal moment standing in a spot I’d seen countless times on TV and in person at games, looking into the stands from a vantage point I’d never dreamed I’d see, and hearing my name, rank, and service branch announced and cheered.
We waved. Then, a few seconds later, it was over. Some folks called out to thank us we walked off the field and filed through the tunnel to be escorted back to the suite. I felt honored and relieved that it all went well. I also couldn’t help thinking about how much things have changed since we came home from the war all those years ago and no one but family and friends offered anything close to a “Welcome Home.”
Hearing it from 60,000-plus people was a pleasant jolt.
More than a few other professional, college, and other sports teams and leagues have recognized Vietnam War veterans for their service in recent years. Last July 15, for example, Home Base—a Boston Red Sox Foundation that works with Massachusetts General Hospital to help present-day service members with homecoming readjustment issues—held its eighth annual Run to Home Base at Fenway Park prior to a Red Sox game. The 2017 event included Vietnam veterans for the first time.
Some 2,400 runners and walkers took part. The crowd “cheered as Vietnam veterans stood, waved, and wiped tears from their eyes,” the Boston Globe reported. “I think it’s very important, even if you oppose a war, you shouldn’t translate that into opposing the warriors,” one Vietnam vet said.
“That ceremony was one of the proudest moments in my life,” former Marine Jim Carleton told Vietnam magazine. “The Boston Strong folks gave us a standing, twenty-minute ovation as we left the baseball field. I finally felt a gratitude for serving that I had never felt before.”
On December 7, 2016, Florida Atlantic University honored veterans at its home football game against the University of Texas at El Paso in Boca Raton. The event included a free tailgate party before the game; a pre-game night jump into the stadium by members of the Ft. Benning Silver Wings jump team; and a special on-field tribute to FAU student veterans and local Vietnam veterans. The latter group included members of local VVA Chapter 1125: Art Brown, Bill Snow, Brian Wooldridge, Bob Buchwald, and Allen Lehner.
Last August, at the Southwest Regional Little League tournament in Waco, Texas, the league honored five Vietnam veterans from Heart of Texas Chapter 1012 with a standing ovation at the start of the game. Then Chapter President Gary Urban threw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was an emotional moment for all the veterans. “Over the years Vietnam veterans have enjoyed a lot more recognition and thank-you’s than we had fifty years ago,” Urban told a local TV station. “So it’s been very gratifying for all of us.”
Other recent tributes include a tailgate party last September that Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, Colorado, threw for VVA’s Denver Chapter 1071 before a home football game. Chapter members were recognized and given an ovation. In August of 2016 the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball joined with VVA’s Central New Jersey Chapter 452 to host pre-game ceremonies honoring active-duty personnel and veterans.
And in June of 2016 members of Asheville, North Carolina, Chapter 124 were honored in pre-game ceremonies at an Asheville Cardinals American Legion baseball game. After that, chapter member Sam Alexander threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“I was a little weak on the throw, but I was glad I could do it,” Alexander said.
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