Dozens of military veterans and their families gathered Saturday at the South Clayton Recreation Center in Lovejoy to be recognized by elected officials for the service.
LOVEJOY — State Sen. Ed Harbison (D-Columbus) still remembers the advice he received as a young Marine returning to the U.S. after a tour of duty in Vietnam.
It wasn’t advice about where to look for post-military employment. It wasn’t about how to deal with the Veterans Administration, post-traumatic stress disorder or how to assimilate back into civilian life.
It was simply a warning because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the occasionally hostile attitude some civilians took toward service members at the time. It stood in stark contrast, he said, to the way veterans of earlier wars were treated when they came home.
“Our veterans who came home from World War II were met in the street, they were celebrated, they were given their just due and they were just welcomed with open arms. But we were told, when I got back, don’t wear your uniform off post,” said Harbison, chairman of the Senate’s Veterans, Military and Homeland Security committee.
About 50 people, including military veterans and their families, listened to Harbison speak about patriotism and the services during a veterans appreciation celebration held Saturday at the South Clayton Recreation Center in Lovejoy. It was hosted by state Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro).
Harbison, Davenport, state Rep. Sandra Scott (D-Rex), Clayton County commission Chairman Jeff Turner, Commissioner Shana Rooks, county police Chief Greg Porter and Sheriff Victor Hill offered words of praise and support for the gathered veterans. Several of them took time to recognize relatives who served in the military at one time or another.
“I want you to know that all members of the Georgia General Assembly, all elected officials here in Clayton County and in other areas, respect all persons who have served in the military,” said Davenport. “So, we give you honor today and we thank you. My father was a World War II veteran and I want you to know that we appreciate all that you did.”
The event began with the Lovejoy High School Air Force JROTC color guard presenting the colors while veteran Mark Brewer sang the national anthem. The elected officials gave their remarks before the anthems for each service branch were played and veterans were asked to stand when they heard their branch’s song.
Harbison then delivered the keynote address, where he explained that he swelled with pride when he heard the branch anthems. He said it was right to thank veterans often for their service, and not just relegate the outward displays of appreciation to Veterans Day in November.
“Every time I hear one of those melodies about the Army and ‘over the hill’ or the others, are just inspiring,” Harbison said. “It’s just really refreshing to see that patriotism is still alive in America.”
One veteran then played “Taps” while a candle was lit next to a battlefield cross in honor of the more than 650,000 service members the VA lists as having died in combat.
Many of the veterans in attendance were veterans of the Vietnam War, although there were a few veterans of more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan present as well. Turner, whose father was in the Army, touched upon the unpopularity of those wars, particularly Vietnam, in his remarks.
“Let me say a personal ‘thank you’ for everything that veterans have done for this great nation,” said Turner. “You served when, obviously, it wasn’t popular. You’ve gone out and protected us even though, when you came back home, a lot of the citizens didn’t care, didn’t look out for you and didn’t want to do anything for you. That has to change.
“That mindset has to change because it is what you do — what you have done — that allows us to live in the greatest country in the world today and that should never be forgotten,” he continued.
Veterans who attended the event, including the Vietnam veterans, said they have seen a change in civilian attitudes toward the military in recent years, with more people willing to show appreciation for service members.
Some of them said the 21st century sights of civilians clapping for returning veterans at airports, or lining the streets for military funeral processions, stands in stark contrast to the treatment Vietnam veterans got in the 1960s.
Forest Park resident James Hurtado said he thinks the treatment veterans get these days is an after effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 12 years ago. Hurtado served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and later served a 15-year stint in the Army from 1975 until 1990.
“After that, we started to realize we had become complacent,” Hurtado said. “When 9/11 happened, we saw that we could be attacked on our own soil. One of the criticisms about Vietnam was that we were fighting somebody else’s war, but Afghanistan and Iraq were more our wars because they brought it to us first.”
Army veteran Curtis Butler III, who did tours of duty in Iraq between 2002 and 2007, there was a sense of duty and a need to serve after 9/11. For Butler, it was personal because he was a native of the terrorist attacks epicenter — New York.
He had previously served from 1989 until 1991, and was inactive reserve for nearly 12 years.
“I felt it was my duty to fight for what’s right,” Butler said. “This wasn’t just a job for me. It was a career.”
Butler said it is difficult for civilians to fully understand what it’s like to go to war and fight while watching people die. Butler, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, has written a book, titled “PTSD: My Story, Please Listen!,” about his experiences and the disorder.
“When you go into a combat zone, you’re surrounded by your buddies from your unit on the plane, but when you come back, many of those seats are empty, and you have to try to put it out of your head,” Butler said.
That is part of why Hurtado said he feels it is important that veterans of the 21st century wars be celebrated and cared for, so they don’t end up feeling abandoned by their country. The way Vietnam veterans were received upon their return from war is still present in their minds, he said.
Events such as Saturday’s appreciation celebration are important to veterans because of that, he said.
“There is still that feeling that we’re the step-children nobody wants,” said Hurtado about Vietnam veterans.