By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

Editor’s Note: This article republished from 2018

Thank you for your service.

We say that a lot in Apopka. To veterans, to police officers, to firefighters. It’s a casual way to show a soldier or first responder the honor and respect they deserve for protecting us both locally and abroad.

With Veteran’s Day approaching, there will be a well-deserved outpouring of support in our community for all those who have served the United States in uniform. And after almost two continuous decades of war, public support for veterans and those serving in today’s all-volunteer force remains extremely high.

This weekend at Kit Land Nelson Park is the annual Family Fall Festival, and for the first time, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall will be a part of the festival. It is the end result of Apopka’s support, respect, and love for its veterans – particularly the efforts of the Apopka Rotary Club and the Festival Chairman Bill Speigel to bring the Vietnam War Traveling Memorial Wall to Apopka. According to sources inside the Rotary Club, Spiegel worked to bring the wall to Apopka for two years.

The wall is a 3/5 scale of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. It stands six feet tall at the center and covers almost 300 feet from end to end.

According to its website, the Traveling Memorial stands as a reminder of the great sacrifices made during the Vietnam War. It was made for the purpose of helping heal and rekindle friendships and to allow people the opportunity to visit loved ones in their hometown who otherwise may not be able to make the trip to Washington.

The Apopka Rotary Club and the City of Apopka are hosting the Wall during Veteran’s Day weekend.

But as supportive as America is to its military in 2018, it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Vietnam War was extremely unpopular in the US. It polarized the country, and in many instances, veterans of that conflict seemed to bear the brunt of criticism even more than the politicians who waged and executed the country’s involvement.

Far too many veterans of Vietnam returned home to scorn and blame. Many of them left the military, and disappeared into or retreated from society and went on with their lives – be it good or bad. Over time, most Vietnam veterans quietly melded successfully back into society and continued with their lives, building businesses and starting families. Others, however, struggled during their re-entry.

Some struggle to this very day.

But what few among us, including possibly even those currently in uniform, truly understand is how much we owe to a special group of veterans: those who fought in Vietnam and then stayed in the military. These brave warriors transformed a force that was broken after the war into the remarkably capable and highly respected U.S. military that exists today.

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 “These soldiers chose to stay in uniform, continuing to serve in a battered force after the painful end of the nation’s most divisive conflict. They dedicated themselves to the immense task of converting the large U.S. draft military into a smaller, more professional all-volunteer force. 

The state of the U.S. military after Vietnam stands in stark contrast with today. The armed forces were profoundly fractured by that decade-long war, with the Army and Marines particularly stricken. The corps of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) was deeply broken, reflecting the massive exodus of career NCOs and too-rapid promotions of others during the long war. Combat training and general military proficiency were at staggeringly low levels. And when the draft ended in 1973, the volunteers entering the force were often less capable than the draftees they replaced. Given the appalling state of the military and widespread public disdain for military service, it was not at all clear whether the very idea of an all-volunteer force could survive.

The small cohort of Vietnam veterans who chose to stay in the U.S. military stepped into this breach. Though their individual reasons varied, they were all deeply committed to the value of military service in an era when serving in uniform was widely disparaged. They refused to give up on the military, or settle for a dysfunctional force in a dangerous world still dominated by Cold War tensions. They chose to stay — and to act.

They became the mentors and guideposts for those just entering the armed forces after Vietnam. Throughout the grim 1970s, they began a slow and painful overhaul of the U.S. military. 

The NCOs who continued to serve after Vietnam helped shape young officers while also re-building professionalism in their own ranks. Platoon sergeants began setting an entirely new example of high standards and professionalism across the NCO ranks. They imposed discipline upon the unruly troops, helping to eliminate soldiers who could not meet the new standards or were simply unfit to serve — far too many of who were recruited in a desperate attempt to prove the viability of the all-volunteer force. All of these Army officers and NCOs had cut their teeth in bloody infantry combat in Vietnam and became mentors and exemplars to those joining the post-war force. Like their peers in the other services, they shared a deep personal commitment to rebuilding the military into a disciplined and professional force that could fight and win the next war.

The story of the U.S. military’s rebuilding in the 1970s and 1980s often highlights large increases in defense budgets, big new weapons systems, innovative new warfighting doctrines, and the insistence exceptionally realistic training. But most of all, this incredible transformation relied upon a cadre of strong and committed officers and NCOs. The leaders who emerged from the cauldron of Vietnam didn’t get everything right and made some serious mistakes — such as discarding the key counterinsurgency lessons of the war. But in the face of daunting obstacles and an often-ambivalent American public, they remained committed to fixing the force they deeply loved. They are the unacknowledged architects and craftsmen who designed and built the foundation of today’s U.S. military — and they deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the ultimate success of the all-volunteer force.

All veterans, including everyone who served in Vietnam, deserve our recognition and gratitude this Veterans Day. But all Americans, and especially those still serving in uniform, should acknowledge the singular contributions of the small group of Vietnam veterans who chose to stay and fix a broken and dispirited force. They painstakingly built the foundations for every aspect of today’s military, and showed an amazing devotion to duty, and to their country, at a time when neither was popular. We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

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I was at the opening ceremonies and toured the traveling wall. Despite the carnival-like atmosphere of the festival, entering the area where the memorial is constructed was a sobering, humbling and reverent experience. Those on the pathway took photos, knelt down looking at specific names, possibly loved ones who died in Vietnam.  

I never met my cousin Johnnie. He enlisted in the Army before I was born, and died in Vietnam when I was a child. I wasn’t able to locate his name on the wall, but I’m sure he is among the 58,000-plus fallen soldiers listed. According to my family, he was in the 101st Airborne Division and died in Operation Malheur on May 25th, 1967 – my fourth birthday.

I don’t think about my cousin very often. His name comes up occasionally in conversations and at family reunions, but I did Wednesday. Knowing his memory lives on through the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC and on this wall is comforting. I’ll be certain to get more details about his life from my family, and it’s because of this experience. I thank Bill Spiegel and the Apopka Rotary for bringing this important symbol to the community. I’m sure there are a lot of people in town that are grateful.

And all of us are grateful for the sacrifice that over 58,000 soldiers listed on this memorial gave, and for those that returned and rebuilt the military into the professional all-volunteer force that it is today.

Thank you for your service.

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