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'An honor': Ceremony held at Yellowstone National Cemetery honoring Vietnam War veterans

Flower wreath at the Vietnam war commemoration ceremony
Posted at 6:26 PM, Mar 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-29 20:26:38-04

LAUREL — On Wednesday, a commemoration ceremony was held at the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel for Vietnam War veterans. Though the war ended decades ago, many survivors are still around today, reflecting on the way they were treated when returning home.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Yellowstone National Cemetery organized the noon ceremony at the American flag podium. The keynote speaker, James Mariska, is a Vietnam War era veteran.

“I just think it’s a good chance for us to get together as a community and talk about what went on in the past," Mariska told MTN News on Wednesday. “(Veterans are) sad that it took this long, but they’re glad that they did get the recognition. But it’s also sad that those who died overseas in the battlefield and stuff, never really were treated properly.”

Vietnam veterans in attendance were honored with a Vietnam War Lapel Pin. According to the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, the Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin's purpose is to, "Recognize, thank, and honor United States military veterans who served during the Vietnam war." Living United State veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, are eligible for the pin, regardless of where they served.

That pin holds a lot of significance to these veterans, who didn't receive a warm welcome when returning to the states so many years ago.

Ray Southworth, a Billings local who was at the ceremony, said that while he didn't serve in Vietnam, he did serve in the era, and he knows firsthand how some returning soldiers were treated.

"The soldiers that came back were in tough shape, man. The lack of leadership, they weren’t treated real well. It was terrible towards the end of the deal," Southworth said on Wednesday. "That’s not to take anything away from any Vietnam veteran. They are the best and I love them all."

Southworth was in the 101st Airborne group in Kentucky with the U.S. Army. He explained he was often mistaken for a Vietnam War soldier when in uniform.

“Took me a long time to get away from how we were treated. I was spit on and danced around by the Hare Krishna (a group that protested the Vietnam War), and people called us 'Baby Killers,'" Southworth said. "I remember we would get spread-eagled at the airport in Billings whenever we wore our uniform, went back. They would check us. Just us. In front of everybody."

According to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the Vietnam War triggered the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history. For more than a decade, protesters made their opposition of the war known.

But even with the animosity against U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, Southworth was still proud to be among them.

"It was an honor to be with those guys, you know what I mean? It was an honor to be acknowledged as one of them,” Southworth said. “In honor of them, I wear my veteran hat to church with a tie on and everything. But I wear it to church. I let them know that we’re amongst you. We’re normal.”

And thanks to this ceremony, Vietnam veterans of Yellowstone County are now being recognized—something the American Legion of Laurel has been doing.

“The American Legion here in Laurel has a trailer that we put in the Fourth of July parade. And I’ve had Vietnam veterans on there, go through the parade, and they just loved it because that was their homecoming," said Richard Klose, a past state commander at the Laurel American Legion. "So it’s good to connect with those people and show them that we do care about them.”

And Klose is thrilled to see ceremonies like this one honoring veterans like himself.

“I was just glad to see so many people here today. With this weather and snow it’s good to see so many people,” Klose said. "The Vietnam veterans are more at ease because they finally got their welcome home. It's great to honor those people."

To learn more about the Vietnam War Lapel Pin, click here.

“As a Baby Boomer, I never gave it a thought that there would be another war that we would be drafted in,” James Mariska said. “Being Baby Boomers, our fathers fought in World War II. Our grandfathers fought in World War I. Service to your country was a summons to the trumpet. And all of us went whether we liked it or not. It was our duty to do."