Maxwell, community honor Vietnam War veterans during Operation Welcome Home

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Lindsay Cryer
  • Air University public affairs

The 42nd Air Base Wing and local communities co-hosted Operation Welcome Home with events in February and March to remember and honor the nation's Vietnam War veterans, prisoners of war, and those still missing in action.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Operation Homecoming, which oversaw the repatriation of POWs following the Vietnam War. Maxwell was one of 10 military installations to welcome them home. Between Feb. 14 and April 10, 1973, 43 former POWs arrived at the base to be reunited with family and friends.

To start the series of events, Air University library staff hosted a guest panel session Feb 14 with three POWs to honor the 50th Anniversary of Operation Homecoming. The panelists were retired Col. Leon F. Ellis Jr., retired Capt. Guy D. Gruters, and retired Col. Carlyle "Smitty" Harris. The panelists shared their personal stories of survival, resiliency and shared examples of support that came from their families, colleagues and the nation.

“The panel kicked off a period of remembrance and postured us once again to commit to the promise that those unaccounted for are not forgotten and will never be forgotten," said Col. Ryan Richardson, 42nd Air Base Wing commander.

On March 12, the American Veterans Traveling Tribute was escorted by a convoy of approximately 50 veterans on motorcycles from Prattville, Ala., to the installation. The Vietnam War traveling wall and the tributes, recognizing the many conflicts U.S. servicemembers have fought in, were then set up on the Officer Training School complex.

A POW/MIA 24-hour run kicked off the morning of March 13 to raise awareness to the more than 81,500 American servicemembers, contractors, and civilians who remain unaccounted for from previous wars and conflicts. The run was held in honor of MIA Maj. Samuel Deichelmann, a 56th Special Operations Wing member and Alabama native.

River Region high school and middle school students visited the traveling wall display March 14. The more than 500 students also got a chance to talk with veterans invited to the base that day.  A special evening social for civic leaders, base leadership teams, and veterans ended the day’s events.

On the final day of the week’s events, March 15, the River Region community was invited on base to view the war memorials and share time with veterans in a special ceremony.

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Army Capt. Gary Michael Rose served as the guest speaker. Rose was awarded the medal for gallantry while serving as a special forces medic.

“Veterans have made this country the fine, great republic it is today for many years. I can't say enough about veterans. It always gives me great honor and pleasure to be amongst Vietnam veterans," said Rose. "There are four generations between then and today, and we are still moving. This determination represents everything great about this country. No finer group of human beings are on this planet than standing before me. Despite everything, all the things the country has suffered during my lifetime, you all keep marching."

Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 607 in Montgomery, Ala., attended the ceremony. The organization promotes and supports a wide range of issues important to Vietnam veterans with the goal of creating a new identity for the current generation of veterans and changing public perception of Vietnam veterans.

"The ceremony provided the privilege to recognize and honor the veterans and our fallen brothers no longer with us," said Jessie Donaldson, Vietnam veteran chapter president.

"Attending this ceremony fulfills my heart because it reminds me that although we were sadly received home back then, it has come full circle and our Vietnam veterans and all our veterans are coming home to a better reception," said Robert Lee Montague, Vietnam veteran. "It's ceremonies like this one that reminds us that our service is valued and honored. "

The installation commander, Richardson, assured Montague and his fellow veterans that the Maxwell-Gunter community will never forget their service and sacrifices. 

"We extend the promise to those 50 years ago who returned from conflict and may never see the thanks for that service, that sacrifice is our charge to make sure that those in attendance today and those 33,000 now in Alabama and in the southeast area know that this Air Force base, this air patch, is a part of their home, and they're always welcome here."

The events were sponsored, in part, by the Alabama Military Support Foundation, Marion Community Bank, Air University Foundation, Montgomery Chamber Wright Flyers, Alabama Power Foundation, and the Air Force Association.