WASHINGTON — After the speeches ended, after the bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” Bob Hamilton went searching for one of the 58,272 names on the polished black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t think about Ray George, a fellow helicopter pilot who was killed in Vietnam when he subbed for Hamilton one day four decades ago.
But Veterans Day, a friend had reminded him, is about thanking those standing in front of the wall, tracing their fingers over the names of the brothers they lost.
So Hamilton, 62, and his fellow veteran Bob Poe, 67, rode their motorcycles from Louisville, Ky., into the nation’s capital with their flags flying for the ceremony. They were celebrating not only their service as veterans, but what journalist and war correspondent Joe Galloway on Friday called an “obligation to live each day to its fullest potential … for our having lived, and their having died.”
“Veterans Day is your day,” Galloway told hundreds of veterans gathered at the memorial on a chilly but bright, blue-skied day.
Galloway, working for United Press International, did four reporting tours in Vietnam. During his first tour, in November 1965, he was at the battle of the Ia Drang valley, the first major fight between U.S. and North Vietnamese troops. Along with Army Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, he wrote the bestseller “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” a detailed account of the battle. Galloway in 1998 was belatedly awarded a Bronze Star with Valor for rescuing a badly wounded soldier under heavy fire during the battle, the only such medal of valor awarded to a civilian by the Army during the Vietnam War.
“Veterans Day is for those who survived, who came home,” he said. “Some with wounds visible, some with wounds invisible. Today is your day, and we think of you, and we think of you with respect. And we think of this country’s obligation to all its veterans, in terms of taking care of their health … taking care to keep the promises we made when you raised your hand and took that oath to protect and defend the Constitution of our beloved country.”
The refrain was similar across the river at Arlington National Cemetery, where President Barack Obama called on Americans to commit to ensuring that veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned. He also praised business leaders for their commitment to hire 100,000 post-9/11 veterans and their spouses over the next few years.
Younger veterans in particular have had a difficult time finding work when they return home from Afghanistan and Iraq. The Labor Department released a report in October that found unemployment is about 28 percent among veterans 30 and younger. Unemployment among all veterans is about 9 percent, the same as the national average.
“Above all, let us welcome them home as what they are — an integral, essential part of our American family,” Obama said. “I ask every American, recruit our veterans. If you’re a business owner, hire them. If you’re a community leader — a mayor, a pastor or a preacher — call on them to join your efforts. Organize your community to make a sustained difference in the life of a veteran, because that veteran can make an incredible difference in the life of your community.”
That’s a major shift in tone from when they returned home in 1968 and 1971, said Hamilton and Poe. Twice during the event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, friends called to thank Poe for his service — a far different greeting than in the years immediately following the Vietnam War.
“The thing we never heard was, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” Hamilton said.
“We didn’t get that when we came back,” Poe said.