By Marc Kovac
Tom Burke recalled his return to the United States in the mid-1960s after a stint overseas.
It wasn’t a warm welcome.
“I walked out of the gate, and I had my uniform on,” the Navy veteran said. “There were people outside of that gate that were protesters. ... They spit on my uniform — and I mean literally spit at me. I was so shocked, I didn’t know whether to beat the guy up or walk away. Well, I wound up walking away.”
Such receptions were common at the time, with military men and women becoming the object of scorn in a country debating involvement in the Vietnam War.
Flash forward more than four decades, with Burke and other veterans of the era standing behind Gov. John Kasich as he signed into law legislation designating March 30 as Vietnam Veterans Day.
“I think of that instance today,” Burke, now president of the Buckeye State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said of the spitting incident, “and I think of how far we have come. This nation has finally realized that our guys did a job, and they did what they had to do. And I’m so glad to be standing here today.”
Senate Bill 134, passed by lawmakers earlier last week as an emergency measure, took effect as soon as Kasich signed it Friday. It sets aside March 30 each year “in honor of those who fought, died and are still unaccounted for in the Vietnam War,” according to an analysis by the state’s Legislative Service Commission.
The date marks the day in 1973 when the last members of the U.S. armed forces withdrew from Vietnam and returned home.
It’s a bill that has been introduced and debated in recent years, at times with opposition from some who said the date marked the anniversary of indictments of eight members of the Ohio National Guard for the May 4, 1970, shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University. It’s also around the same time Lt. William Calley was found guilty of ordering the killings in the My Lai massacre.
But proponents of the bill and supportive lawmakers continued to push the legislation, saying it would provide the kind of recognition that was lacking when Vietnam veterans returned from their service.
“Today is an opportunity for the citizens of our state to come together and welcome home the men and women who served bravely in Vietnam,” said Sen. Mark Wagoner, a Republican from Toledo and primary sponsor of the bill.
Tom Moe, director, State Veterans Services, a Vietnam veteran and former wartime prisoner, said the legislation would serve as a “welcome home” for the state’s 300,000 military men and women who served in Vietnam.