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When Ed Costello came home from Vietnam, his fellow Americans treated him like the enemy.
“People threw bleach on us, spit on us,” he said. “Now, even thinking about it, I get choked up. It was a bad experience.”
Costello and his comrades received a hero’s homecoming Saturday as the Wilson Committee on Patriotism held its annual Veterans Day ceremony. Hundreds of people attended to thank veterans and active-duty troops for serving their country in uniform.
“The guys coming back don’t see this,” Costello said. “All they see is getting off the airplane and stuff. For them to see this, it makes them feel welcome.”
VETS HELPING VETS
A 22-year Air Force veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, Costello said he wants troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to experience an outpouring of public support.
“That’s why you don’t find a lot of veterans joining veterans groups because of the way that they got treated during Vietnam,” he said. “I’m not going to let that happen again.”
Costello is a member of American Legion Riders Post 19 and the Committee on Patriotism that organizes Wilson’s Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances. He also participated in a rifle volley salute to close Saturday’s service with the Wilson County Veterans Honor Guard.
Some of the nation’s oldest and most well-known veterans’ groups are working to reverse declines in membership in order to continue their missions of providing a supportive social atmosphere, promoting patriotism and military history education and lobbying Congress and state legislatures for veteran benefits.
Costello wants young veterans to know they’re welcome at American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans halls.
“Right now it’s that a lot of them haven’t been asked, undoubtedly,” he said. “They are coming around, they are seeing the benefits of it. The more that we can let them know that there are people out there trying to look after them, they will start joining the organizations.”
‘OUR QUEST FOR FREEDOM’
Saturday’s observance included a wreath-laying for fallen service members, a Missing Man Table service for prisoners of war and those missing in action and rousing renditions of three patriotic songs from the Community Christian School Chorus.
Wilson City Councilman Logan Liles, who represents District 6 and is a member of the Committee on Patriotism, filled in as featured speaker after both the scheduled guest and a backup speaker bowed out due to other commitments.
“Our quest for freedom echoes,” Liles said, urging attendees thank and honor those willing to lay down their lives to preserve American liberties.
“We pray for their safe return, and we stand ready to support their families while they are away,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tempore James Johnson, who represents District 4 on the City Council, said veterans should be seen as role models for children on par with action movie secret agents and even Superman himself.
“You go to the TV and you these guys jumping, fighting, dodging bullets, doing things that are not realistic. We classify them as superheroes — kids see them in comic books or cartoons,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got a roomful of superheroes here with us today and I certainly appreciate their service. I view you as superheroes for everything you’ve done.”
The ceremony brought a new star-spangled banner to the Wilson County Veterans Memorial on the courthouse pavilion. Beddingfield High School Junior ROTC cadets lowered and folded the American flag, and their counterparts in the Fike High JROTC unfurled and hoisted its replacement.
Betty Jean Dixon and Charlotte Rhice of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 17 also performed a ceremonial flag-folding with Committee on Patriotism Chairman E. Ray Chambers providing narration, explaining the significance behind each of the 13 practiced folds that combine to produce a triangle shape.
Chambers said attendance for the Saturday event, which he estimated around 500, exceeded his expectations.
“I am tremendously pleased with the participation and the folks who came out,” Chambers said. “I’m very pleased that they would brave the cold weather. The weather reports said it was going to be cold, but when you get a lot of people together, it brings body heat.”
Army veteran Jimmy Forte of Wilson, who served in Vietnam, said the annual ceremony gave him the opportunity to be among comrades.
“You get to meet people who served in the same era that you served in,” he said. “You can relate to them.”
Forte didn’t experience public shaming when he returned from the war, but he did notice a palpable lack of support.
“It was very stressful when I first got back,” Forte said. “I had a hard time adapting back to civilian life. The public didn’t appreciate Vietnam veterans.”
Arthur Gaskins also served in the Vietnam War. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 18 and was stationed at Camp Lejeune after his brother, an Army soldier, was killed in battle.
“It was rough; it was just rough,” he said. “I wrote him a letter, and when I got home I found out that he had been killed. I went and joined the service later on.”
Gaskins said two of his godsons are currently in the Army, and he doesn’t hesitate to recommend military service to young people.
“It’s a good experience for them to join, to travel and see the world, to learn, to make new friends,” he said.