Irvin Banks was 18 when he deployed to Vietnam in 1966 as part of the Army’s First Infantry Division, among the first divisions sent to fight in the Southeast Asian country.
Banks and his two brothers, who also served, all returned home to Douglassville, Pennsylvania, where he still lives.
On Sunday, Banks traveled to Frederick to honor fellow Vietnam veterans. He thought of those less fortunate, including the 23 Frederick County residents who died in the war.
“I know a lot of people who didn’t go home,” said Banks, now 75.
He also made the two-hour trip to watch his niece, Lanessa Hill, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Detrick, lead an event commemorating veterans like Banks.
“As a military daughter, niece, granddaughter and member of this community, I am deeply honored to be a part of today’s ceremony,” Hill said before introducing other speakers at the commemoration.
Hill addressed a large crowd that gathered Sunday afternoon in Frederick’s Memorial Park to honor the 50th anniversary of the end of the two-decade war.
Hill, like every speaker after her, spoke above the brisk Sunday wind blowing and the buzz of two fire engines hoisting an American flag between their ladders.
A number of officials representing Fort Detrick, local and state governments and county law enforcement who spoke at the commemoration have family members who fought in Vietnam or are themselves from former soldiers.
Officials spoke of how much it meant to be thanked and recognized for their service when they returned home from later wars, which troops returning from Vietnam in the 1970s did not receive.
“The welcome and support the Army now receives from the public is a direct result of lessons learned after the Vietnam War,” said Brigadier General Tony McQueen, commanding general of the Medical Research and Development Command of the US Army and Fort Detrick.
McQueen said he arrived to a cheering crowd when he landed in Dallas following the conclusion of his second deployment to Iraq in 2007. He said he was filled with awe as he thought back to the reception he he had received, but felt sadness for Vietnam veterans who had received no such homecoming.
Stephen Wivell, who was 22 when he returned home to Emmitsburg after serving in Vietnam, said he did not encounter the animosity his peers felt when they returned.
But Vietnam’s experiences still haunt the Air Force veteran, who said he was dodging rocket fire just hours after arriving at the base there.
“I didn’t know anyone there,” said Wivell, now 73. “All I know is that everyone was running for cover.”
Wivell’s brother Bill clearly remembers his own comeback. He was stationed in Guam and the Philippines during the war, but was told not to wear his uniform to the airport when he returned home to avoid being spat on.
Sunday’s commemoration, which featured plenty of applause and expressions of gratitude for those who served in the war, was a far cry from the welcome Bill Wivell and others received half a century ago.
“It means so much to me when someone comes up to me and says thank you,” he said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”
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