Vietnam Veterans Honored Half-Century After Conflict Began

Rep. Ryan Zinke presents commemorative pins to nearly 200 local veterans

By Justin Franz

The line of mostly gray haired veterans wrapped around the room, and every time it got shorter, another group stood up to fill it in. At the end of the line stood Congressman Ryan Zinke, who offered a handshake, a pin commemorating their service and a hearty “Bravo Zulu and welcome home.”

A half-century after the Vietnam War began, many of those who fought in that conflict are finally receiving the welcome they never received when they came home from Southeast Asia.

“When I came back here from combat there were bands and pats on the back, but that’s not the case for many of you,” Zinke said at a pin ceremony at Flathead Valley Community College on June 2, the seventh such event held this spring around Montana.

More than 2.7 million American soldiers served in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Montana has one of the highest populations of veterans per capita and more than 100,000 from conflicts call the state home.

Zinke, who was a Navy Seal in the 1990s and 2000s before entering politics, handed out nearly 200 commemorative Vietnam veteran lapel pins in Kalispell. Spokesperson Heather Swift said the Congressman has issued more than 1,300 pins at medal ceremonies in Missoula, Helena, Butte, Bozeman, Billings and Great Falls in recent weeks. Swift said more ceremonies are planned for eastern Montana and elsewhere in the coming months.

The ceremony featured brief comments by Zinke, the congressman’s district director and Vietnam veteran John Fuller, and veteran Maj. Tim Grattan.

“We who have been there and done that know,” Grattan said to his fellow veterans. “We survive a war that most people would rather forget about.”

Among the veterans who received a pin was Richard Huffman, who served as an aviation ordnanceman for the U.S. Navy in 1971 and 1972 and served in the Gulf of Tonkin. He said when he returned stateside after serving he was greeted by protestors.

“It didn’t feel like home when I came back,” he said.

Another U.S. Navy veteran, Gary Wilson, echoed Huffman’s sentiment.

“Those of us who served were not welcomed when we came back because it was a very unpopular war,” he said. “It’s wonderful that they’re (recognizing Vietnam veterans) now.”