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Program honors Southern Crescent veterans

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Today, veterans and soldiers serving in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are praised and encouraged privately and publicly. Frederick Lewis, an ambassador for the U.S. Army's Freedom Team Salute Program, however, argued that many veterans in previous conflicts never got a "thank you."

On Wednesday, the Freedom Team Salute Program honored Army veterans from the World War II to the Vietnam War eras, at the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale.

"For those of us who were Vietnam veterans, we came back to this country without a real thank you from our country," said Lewis. "A lot of us are carrying baggage that we don't really like."

Lewis said that a "thank you" or a simple handshake "goes a long way to making veterans feel better about themselves and their service." During the program, 21 veterans from throughout the Southern Crescent were honored with packets from the Army, containing certificates of commendation, decorative pins, and Army decals.

Annie Cummings, a non-combat solider from Riverdale, who served during the Vietnam era, said, "It's a great feeling to know that we're still appreciated."

Cummings said that the Vietnam War, in particular, polarized the country, and that many returning veterans were treated poorly.

"I think that, maybe, America is learning from the mistakes in its past," said Cummings. She said Americans now realize the difficulty of the personal sacrifices soldiers must make.

Juan Davis, a Vietnam War veteran and retired combat engineer and demolition expert from Riverdale, said that even today, many veterans feel "cheated." One of many soldiers affected by Agent Orange -- a carcinogenic herbicide used to thin the jungles of Vietnam -- Davis said actions speak louder than words.

"We don't get our disability like we should," he said. "They try to discourage you from applying for benefits. You apply again and again and they hope that you just give up. All the veterans should be compensated.

"An apology at this point doesn't mean nothing," Davis continued. Rather, he said people should pressure Congress to pass bills to compensate veterans for their sacrifices.

Debbie Stanley, program coordinator at the Frank Bailey Senior Center, said her father was hit by a land mine while serving in Vietnam. While he was able to heal physically, many of her father's mental scars still remain, Stanley said.

"They never got the respect that they needed after the war," she said. "I thought it was nice that we got to recognize some of the seniors here."

She said that eventually she would like to expand the Freedom Team Salute to include the Charley Griswell Senior Center and the Clayton County Aging Program.

"Hopefully we can come together as a division to honor our veterans," said Stanley.