BUTLER TWP. — Berwick resident Bob Decker’s eyes brimmed with tears Wednesday as he clutched his new lapel pin commemorating his service in the Vietnam War.
“There are not enough words to express what this means,” Decker said.
More than 90 veterans were honored during the National Vietnam Veterans Day pinning ceremony at the township community center. The offices of state Rep. Tarah Toohil and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey coordinated the event.
Toohil, a 38-year-old Republican and township resident, told the veterans and their family members she and others born after the war will work to ensure future generations never forget their service in a “war like no other.”
“We consider today’s ceremony to be our small way to say thank you for all that you did five decades ago to fight the spread of communism and to give the people of Southeast Asia the freedom that they were desperately seeking,” Toohil said.
The United States was divided during the war, which she described as a “very turbulent time.”
More than 58,000 American soldiers, including 3,144 from Pennsylvania, had died by the time the country pulled out of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, she said.
Many soldiers returned home with deep mental and emotional scars from the “horrors that they endured” during guerrilla warfare in jungles with monsoons amid ongoing political turmoil at home, Toohil said.
“Unfortunately we were not as successful as we had been in other wars, but that does not and should not diminish the sacrifices that were made in protecting our country and protecting the freedoms that we cherish as American citizens,” she said.
In prior generations, soldiers had been greeted with open arms and hailed as heroes when they returned from battlefields, but many from Vietnam were “disrespected and abused by an angry public,” she said.
“It is my sincere hope that in the decades since your return, we have made it clear that you are not forgotten by your country. We owe you so much,” she said.
Drafted at 26, Decker said he served with the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division and was dropped from choppers in remote locations to set up communications equipment. It was called the “leg unit.”
He suffered emotionally and physically from the effects of chemical exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.
Praising the VA Medical Center in Plains Township for its medical care, Decker said he and a group of veterans meet regularly as part of an informal support network.
The gathering of so many veterans in one place Wednesday was memorable, he said. Therapy dogs, refreshments and literature about veteran programs also were available.
“It’s like pulling us together again after we have been separated,” Decker said.
He plans to attach his new pin to his cap.
Lifelong friends and township residents Jackie Oliver and Gerald Tranguch said they will keep their pins in cases. They both expressed appreciation for the ceremony.
“It was wonderful,” said Oliver, who was in a wheelchair pushed by Tranguch.
Veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time between Nov. 1, 1955, and May 15, 1975, regardless of location, were eligible for the pin.
Toohil said her office will deliver pins to eligible homebound veterans if they contact her staff at (570) 453-1344.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.