A series of events at three different venues around central Ohio the last week of March is intended to give the state's Vietnam veterans something many of them didn't get when they returned from overseas: a heartfelt welcome home.
The Vietnam Veterans Commemoration will run March 26-29, culminating March 30 in the first Vietnam Veterans Day in Ohio. Gov. John Kasich signed a bill into law last year designating that date for remembering those who served and those who died in the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Events that week will take place at Motts Military Museum in Groveport, the Ohio Historical Society and Ohio Statehouse.
"The Wall that Heals," a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will be on the grounds of the Ohio Historical Society throughout the week. It was first unveiled on Veterans Day 1996.
"It's a very well-known replica of the Wall," said Michael McKinney, director communications for the Ohio Department of Veteran Services. "We feel very fortunate to get it."
According to the website of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the Wall has visited more than 350 cities and towns throughout the nation since it was dedicated.
"Bringing the Wall home to communities throughout our country allows the souls enshrined on the memorial to exist once more among family and friends in the peace and comfort of familiar surroundings," the website says. "The traveling exhibit ... allows the many thousands of veterans who have been unable to cope with the prospect of facing the Wall to find the strength and courage to do so within their own communities, thus allowing the healing process to begin."
Times change, and that's reflected in the public's attitude toward those who served in combat, McKinney said.
"For the most part, I would say today people are separating the war from the warrior," he said.
That was often not the case for those returning from the controversial, divisive war in Vietnam four decades or more ago.
"I was there for a year, and when I came home, the welcome I got in California was pretty ugly," recalled Westerville resident Dave Cooper, a member of the committee that's planned the commemoration. "I tried to distance myself from anything related to the military because I just felt like an outcast. It took a lot of years for me to get involved.
"Once I got involved, I've stayed involved, and I've been trying to do everything I can to welcome our veterans now who've come from every single thing that's happened, from Serbia to Iraq ... to make sure they're welcomed home with open arms.
"They didn't create the situation. They were following orders," Cooper said.
"I think you can talk to any number of Vietnam veterans," McKinney said. "They just did not feel that they got any welcome home at all. Many of them felt like they had to more or less sneak home and put their uniforms away.
"It's nice now that here in Ohio we're taking most of a week to remember them, honor them, remember the ones who didn't come back and give them a welcome home."
"We've invited all the military organizations of all eras to participate," said Cooper, who owns a business in the Northland area. "The turnout is expected to be anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000. I don't think anybody knows."
The opening ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Commemoration is scheduled from 10 to 10:45 a.m. March 26 at the Ohio Historical Society. Special exhibits denoting the events will be on display throughout that day at the Statehouse Museum Gallery, the historical society and at Motts Military Museum.
"The Wall that Heals" will arrive that day from Cincinnati, accompanied by a military escort up Interstate 71 with local police, sheriff and fire department officials saluting from overpasses, Cooper said.
He added the Department of Veterans Affairs will have psychologists and medical personnel on hand at the Wall to care for the many veterans and family members likely to be overcome by emotion.
The Vietnam Veterans Commemoration has the dual themes of "Welcome Home" and "Remember the Fallen."
Planning for the week of events began last fall and included many representatives from the Ohio chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, McKinney said.
For more information, including a complete schedule of events and ways in which people may become involved, visit dvs.ohio.gov/home/vietnam_veterans_commemoration.aspx.