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Military News

Tampa ceremony honors Vietnam War veterans

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TAMPA -

Mike O’Dell remembers coming home to fights in upstate New York.

Gerard Abbett received free beers at the airport, but attitude from acquaintances back in Cambridge, Mass.

Lester Daniels and his family got the cold shoulder at a Tampa restaurant and walked out.

The three men, all of whom fought in Vietnam, were among about 200 veterans of that war -- and their families and friends -- who took part in the third annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony today.

More than 58,000 U.S. troops died in that conflict, more than 300,000 were wounded and 1,677 still are listed as missing in action.

Scheduled close to the anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Vietnam on March 30, 1973, the ceremony at the Hillsborough County Veterans Museum and Park’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a chance to thank those who came home to receptions starkly different from those afforded troops today.

“When I returned home from Afghanistan, my treatment was very different than what was received by those returning from Vietnam,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Devin Statham, chief of Senior Officers Matters at U.S. Central Command.

Statham, the guest speaker at the event, said he returned not to derision, but to a warm welcome with people waiting to thank him.

“That shows all the good and all the bad,” he said, in turn thanking the Vietnam veterans, like his father-in-law, for serving as mentors and role models.

Abbett, 64, recalled a warm welcome in an airport bar, where the bartender, seeing him in uniform, gave him two beers for free. But later, back home in Cambridge, the medically retired sergeant who received two Purple Heart medals for his war wounds, remembers being at a party where people were giving him a hard time about the war.

“I read them the riot act,” he said. “It was a dinner news event on TV and people formed their own opinions from that. But they didn’t know what really happened over there.”

Abbett, now heading efforts to create a Purple Heart Memorial at the park, said Saturday’s ceremony was a chance to share his pride in having served.

O’Dell, now 59 and living in Riverview, said when he came home to Cold Spring, N.Y., after serving three years in the Navy, people picked fights with him.

“They wanted to know, ‘What was the war about?’” he recalled. “‘Why did you let the government do that?’ I heard every insult, and people wanted to know if I killed women and children.”

During the ceremony to mark the annual Medal of Honor Day on March 25, O’Dell read the names of two local men who earned the nation’s highest combat honor.

Sgt. 1st Class Gary Lee Littrell, 68, received the Medal of Honor for his actions during a five-day battle in Vietnam in 1970. Paul R. Smith, who was 33 when he was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2003, was honored posthumously two years later for saving about 100 soldiers in actions that cost him his life.

Daniels, 66, came back to Tampa in 1968 after a combat tour in Vietnam to people giving him a hard time.

“They called me baby killer,” he said. “I tried to keep my cool.”

For the longest time, Daniels kept his thoughts about Vietnam to himself. Events like the ceremony, he said, echoing the thoughts of many who attended, offer long-overdue solace.

“It is nice to be remembered, and thanked,” he said. “I just wish there were more people from Tampa here, not just the veterans.”


haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

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