There are nearly 160,000 Vietnam War veterans living in Tennessee today, and on Monday at Fischer Park in Spring Hill, and handful of them were honored during a Vietnam War veterans ceremony.
Appropriately held in the Veterans Plaza at the park that morning, the date of the ceremony was chosen to align with Tennessee's own Vietnam Veterans Day, a day that lands on March 29 every year to commemorate the release of the last remaining Vietnam prisoners of war exactly 42 years ago in 1973.
Organized by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Spring Hill Parks & Recreation Department, the event hosted speakers like Vicki Jams, the regent of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and state Rep. Sam Whitson, a retired U.S. Army veteran who served abroad during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
"Between 1964 and 1975, more than 3 million Americans left their homes and families and served overseas in a series of battles and conflicts in the Vietnam War; you guys paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation," Jams said into a crowd of local veterans.
"Today, we remain thankful to those of you who fought in this conflict and are grateful for your brave service. You still, today, give us pride and give us inspiration for your courage, bravery, honor and sacrifice."
Beyond simply honoring them, Tennessee's Vietnam Veterans Day was also enacted to "recognize the men and women who were denied a proper welcome upon returning home more than 40 years ago" in accordance with the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017.
This point was not lost on Whitson, who during his speech at the ceremony recalled his time in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).
"We mark this day to honor Vietnam War veterans in an effort to recognize those who served during the war and didn't receive the warm welcome they deserved when they came back home," Whitson said.
"On this day in March, 1973, I was a second semester freshman ROTC cadet at MTSU, and you can imagine that time in 1973 when ROTC was not the most popular course on campus... but I enjoyed it."
Protests during the Vietnam War were common in the United States, with pages from an 1970 MTSU yearbook chalked full of photos of students performing anti-war sit-ins and demonstrations.
Nevertheless, Whitson said that many of those in leadership roles during his time in the ROTC were Vietnam veterans, and that to him, they were his role models and heroes.
"They were the quiet, dedicated professionals who saw it as their duty to serve when called upon by our nation," Whitson said. "At that time when so many Americans turned their back on them and our military, they never turned their back on America, and you veterans out there are those proud that served us in times of need - I will always remember that."
One such local Vietnam War veteran was 93-year-old Carl Schneider of Thompson's Station.
Having also served in the Korean War as a fighter pilot with the United States Air Force, Schneider served in the Vietnam War in 1961 and 1962 before new orders landed him at the Pentagon. A major general with the Air Force, Schneider retired in 1978 while in Arizona, and moved to Thompson's Station in 2015.
"Before the pandemic, we had a group [of veterans] that always met at the Costco at 11 a.m. every Friday," Schneider said. "We'd have anywhere from 30 to 50 veterans there. I started my own company after my military [service], ran that for 20 years, and then I've been working with Veterans Issues now for 20 years in Arizona and here."
Schneider is just one of the nearly 160,000 aforementioned Vietnam War veterans living in Tennessee today, and received an honorable mention during the ceremony. Schneider joined in saluting his fellow veterans during the ceremony, as well as to the 1,295 Tennesseans who lost their lives during the conflict.