Tom Burke returned home from military service in the Vietnam War and was scorned and even spit upon by war protesters.
More than 40 years later, he is proudly taking part in Ohio’s first observance of the state’s Vietnam Veterans Day, which he and other veterans sought for years.
“Many Vietnam veterans have waited a long time for something that validates their service,” said Burke, who has vivid memories of protesters spitting on his uniform after he returned home. “Back then, the war and the warriors got blurred, and unfortunately the warrior became the war for some.”
But Burke thinks the country has learned the difference. He joined other veterans in Columbus on Tuesday to open the display of a traveling replica of the Vietnam War Memorial wall at the Ohio History Center. The ceremony began four days of commemorative events.
The week shouldn’t just be somber but “also joyful for those who came home,” Retired Air Force Col. Tom Moe, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, said in a telephone interview Tuesday, recounting what he told veterans and others at the event.
He also told the standing-room-only crowd, “If you haven’t heard it before, thank you.”
The actual date of Vietnam Veterans Day is March 30, but commemorative events were being held early to avoid conflicting with Easter weekend.
A remembrance ceremony will end the display of “The Wall that Heals” replica Friday. Other events include panel discussions on the war and its aftermath, a Statehouse exhibit emphasizing Ohioans’ role in the war and a ceremony Thursday at the Statehouse.
Moe said the veterans day wasn’t approved without controversy.
Burke, president of the Buckeye State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America, and other veterans began lobbying for it in 2009, and Moe started gauging veterans’ views on it when he took office in 2010. He says an estimated 300,000 of Ohio’s 867,000 current veterans served during the time of the Vietnam War.
Some questioned whether the day was needed, with a national Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day.
Vietnam veteran Harry Prestanski, of West Chester near Cincinnati, said that was his view until he talked with other veterans and decided “it was a way to welcome home those who never felt welcomed.”
Prestanski mostly received support upon returning home, but said he heard the word “baby killer” once and someone threw ink or dye on his uniform at an airport.