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Reconnecting with the past--Flying Yankees host Vietnam 50th Commemoration

Numerous vendors were open for business at the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Event at Bradley Air National Guard Base, July 11 and 12. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Numerous vendors were open for business at the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Event at Bradley Air National Guard Base, July 11 and 12. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

American Huey 369 crewmen, prepare their UH-1 Huey for the commemoration event. 
The crew, veteran military pilots and technicians, travels across the country for military and aircraft commemorative events. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

American Huey 369 crewmen, prepare their UH-1 Huey for the commemoration event. The crew, veteran military pilots and technicians, travels across the country for military and aircraft commemorative events. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Kjell Tollefsen was shot down three times during his service in Vietnam as a UH-1 Huey pilot, from 1967-1968. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Kjell Tollefsen was shot down three times during his service in Vietnam as a UH-1 Huey pilot, from 1967-1968. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha discussed his military experiences in Vietnam and his work helping veterans and service members at the commemoration event. Bucha said the ā€˜Dā€™ should be taken out of PTSD, because it is not a disorder.  (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha discussed his military experiences in Vietnam and his work helping veterans and service members at the commemoration event. Bucha said the ā€˜Dā€™ should be taken out of PTSD, because it is not a disorder. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Guests were given an opportunity to take short flights in a  UH-1 Huey. The crew, veteran military pilots and technicians, work for American Huey 369, which travels across the country for military and aircraft commemorative events. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Guests were given an opportunity to take short flights in a UH-1 Huey. The crew, veteran military pilots and technicians, work for American Huey 369, which travels across the country for military and aircraft commemorative events. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Members of the Air Guard performed color guard duties for the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Event, opening ceremonies, July 11, at Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Members of the Air Guard performed color guard duties for the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Event, opening ceremonies, July 11, at Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Mary Light and Francis MCann waited in line to take a ride in the UH-1. Both women are members of American Gold Star Mothers, and both lost their sons in Vietnam. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Mary Light and Francis MCann waited in line to take a ride in the UH-1. Both women are members of American Gold Star Mothers, and both lost their sons in Vietnam. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Members of the CT Patriot Guard Riders participated in the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Event, opening ceremonies, July 11. The two day event drew hundreds of guests to Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

Members of the CT Patriot Guard Riders participated in the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Event, opening ceremonies, July 11. The two day event drew hundreds of guests to Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Simon, JFHQ Public Affairs)

BRADLEY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, East Granby, Conn. -- On the weekend of July 10, 2015, the gates at Bradley Air National Guard Base, East Granby, Connecticut, were opened for the public to celebrate and welcome home Veterans from the Vietnam War era. As part of the Vietnam 50th Celebration, the base was one of two sites offering historical displays and events that highlighted the actions and lives of the men who served in Vietnam.

Taking on a temporary facelift, the base looked like a scene out the television show M.A.S.H., complete with camouflaged netting draped across the trees, Vietnam-era vehicles, aircraft and accoutrements as well as a working UH-1 (Huey) providing "combat flights." The event presented an anachronistic view of what it was like to serve in Vietnam.

According to Eileen Hurst, director of the Veterans History Project at Central Connecticut State University and a member of the Vietnam 50th Planning Committee, the event was the product of two-and-a-half years of planning and hard work.

The event was also a result of the partnership between the Veterans History Project and the Department of Defense's national commemoration committee which aims to recognize the anniversary of the Vietnam War. Hurst said they set the war date from 1961 - 1975, therefore the commemoration period is 2011 to 2025. Every state can commemorate it as many ways and as many times as they want during that period.

We have done some smaller things in previous years and we wanted to do something huge, said Hurst. So we partnered with the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs and decided to expand on the New England Air Museum's open cockpit days with Vietnam-era aircraft, she said.

Among the aircraft showcased at the base were a C-130H Hercules, an AC-47 Spooky, a couple of A-10 Warthogs, a B-52 Stratofortress, a C-5 Galaxy, a UH-60 Blackhawk, CH-47 Chinook, a UH-1 Huey and a pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons.

The intent of the event, according to Hurst, was to educate the attendees about the Vietnam War and to offer those who served in Vietnam a proper welcome home.

"Our Vietnam Vets deserve it--when we do our interviews for the Library of Congress, we hear the real stories from these guys; and their stories are just terrible. It's not a myth the way they were treated when they came home," said Hurst.

"Having served in Vietnam from '70-71, I wanted to make sure the word got out to the Veterans community that it was time to accept the long overdue thanks for their service the community had to offer, in a friendly atmosphere, not like when they came home," said Brig. Gen. (ret) Daniel McHale, a committee member with the Vietnam 50th Planning Committee.

On the flip side, Hurst said, she does get the stories that don't reflect mistreatment, but that the Vietnam vets were ignored; something that she said was just as bad.

"They thought Americans would be proud of them and grateful, instead they had to take their uniforms off, hide them in the closet and not even talk about their service. Nobody wanted to hear what they did. So for all of these years, most of those Vietnam vets haven't talked about it, never been thanked and have never been honored. We wanted to go over the top and let them know that Connecticut loves them," said Hurst.

Aside from Connecticut welcoming them home, the event provided an opportunity for Veterans that served during the war to reconnect with each other and for some to bring closure to or start the healing process associated with the experiences of the war.

"So many emotional things happened out at the Huey," said Hurst. "One lady, whom I never met before, came up to me and gave me a huge hug as she was standing in line waiting for a ride [on the Huey] with her husband. She said 'you have no idea, it's going to help chase those demons away,'" Hurst said.

An email from a daughter of a B-52 pilot to Col. Fred Miclon, vice commander for the 103rd Airlift Wing, illustrates a story about how the event allowed her father to start opening up about his experience in Vietnam.

According to Miclon, the woman writes of one of her father's buddies from Vietnam being vaporized by a surface-to-air-missile while in a B-52. The father also went down in a C-130, sustaining burns to his body. When the father found out about the event it changed him a bit; he was more open and started to talk about the experiences.

She wrote that on the day of the event, her father was up earlier than usual, dressed and ready to be here right when the gates were to open--which is not like him, Miclon said.

After 50 years of running into people that you went to war with--that can get emotional. "All of sudden they are yelling and screaming and crying, and he said, 'I flew with all these guys'--it sends chills up my spine. I get goosebumps even now just thinking about it," said Miclon, referring to another story about one of his Guardsman's father being reunited with his war buddy. Coincidently, that buddy was one of the pilots providing the rides on the Huey.

For some though, the event was a conduit for help. "Over 200 Vietnam Veterans and some currently serving in the Air and Army Guard sought out the [the Department of Veterans Affairs] for information and assistance. Many, as much as 125 to 150 people, had never registered before. That was a highlight of the event. To have them come forward was a step in the right direction and it validated that the state and federal VA's [sic] were there to help," said McHale.

In addition to the aforementioned reunions and welcome homes, the event brought a lot of positive exposure to the Air Guard, said Miclon.

"One of the tasks our Adjutant General had for us was to take care of the committee and make this a world-class event--that was always at the forefront for the team here at the base," said Miclon.

The level of detail was on par with an actual military deployment or movement. So many moving parts from civil engineers, to medics, to security, fire and operations came together to host the event for upwards of the 6,000 people that attended.

"Bottom line is, when people walked into this event, they didn't just walk into the Vietnam committee's event; they walked into the Air National Guard Base. Home of the Flying Yankees--that's the first thing they see on the sign out there," Miclon said.

"I cannot say enough about the men and women at the Air Guard base. They were just outstanding. They were extremely supportive the entire way," said Hurst. All in all, the committee that put on the event agrees the event was a success. They were able to welcome home Vietnam Veterans, get help to those who needed it, provide a positive forum for others to heal and reconnect, and educate the public about the Vietnam War era and the men who fought in it.

The commemoration period is not over, however, and Hurst said the committee will be doing events during the whole celebration time period, right up through 2025.

"We won't be doing anything this big again, this was our big one. We will be doing something every year though," she said.

So, if you know someone who may have missed this opportunity, be sure to look for the next one by visiting the Central Connecticut State University's Veterans History Project online presence at http://web.ccsu.edu/vethistoryproject.