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Vietnam era veterans welcomed home at commemoration event

Community members and veterans gather outside the Hastings Veterans Home on Friday night for a POW/MIA plaque dedication. Star Gazette photo by Michelle Wirth

When the soldiers who fought for the United States of America in the Vietnam War came home, most of them were never welcomed home or thanked for their service. They had risked their lives to fight for the U.S., yet they didn’t get much thanks because of how the media was portraying the war and not many people had supported it.

On Friday evening, the Hastings community put together a Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. Vietnam-era veterans were welcomed home at the event. There was a POW/MIA plaque rededication next to a tree planted to honor those prisoners of war and missing in action veterans, speakers, videos and comradeship.

Rick Kleis was one of the veterans who attended the event. He moved to Hastings in 1968 when he was a sophomore in high school. At 18-years-old he joined the military and went to Vietnam. He said he was proud of his service then, and he is proud of his service now.

“After 20-some years of being in the shadows, in the closet so to speak, it’s nice to come out into the public-sphere and not necessarily be recognized but not be ostracized either,” Kleis said.

He remembers some of the protests in the ‘60s and ‘70s that were against the war that took a toll on some of the veterans. He said he was sheltered from most of it because he came back with an injury and spent a little over two months in the hospital, but other people had different experiences.

“Some of the men and women that came back truly experienced some real terrible incidents with the radicalized public that took their angers out on the veterans,” he said.

Lee Ulferts, the keynote speaker and Vietnam War veteran, said he knows there are a lot of veterans who still haven’t had any healing, and he is happy to attend the commemoration events as a way to help them get past that.

Ulferts said he remembers his first step in healing came in 1991 when his wife asked him to attend a welcome home event at Fort Snelling for some soldiers. Ulferts said he immediately said “Hell no, nobody came to welcome me home, nobody did that for me, why would I do that for them?” Within a few minutes, he said he was so ashamed of what he said. He changed his mind and decided he would give the soldiers the best welcome home he could do.

After arriving at Fort Snelling, a matronly looking woman made conversation with Ulferts and asked if he served, when he served and where he served. Ulferts told her he served in Vietnam and she paused for a few moments. The woman said, “No one ever gave you a welcome home did they?”

Ulferts knew what was coming next. The woman asked if she could give him a hug and welcome him home.

“And I’ll tell you, I hadn’t cried like that in years,” Ulferts said. “I mean, that was the first time and I’ve never ever forgotten that.”

Veterans who attended the event received bronze pins in commemoration. The event was part of the proclamation made by President Barack Obama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

The proclamation states that the Federal Government will partner with local governments, private organizations and communities to participate in the commemoration “to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

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