Event organizer Donna Rowe, herself an Army nurse in Saigon, called the 50 Vietnam vets in attendance to come line the walkway in the center of the Hilton Atlanta/Marietta Hotel and Conference Center ballroom. With 1960s music from Buffalo Springfield and Credence Clearwater Revival playing, Rowe told the veterans they were getting the welcome home they didn’t receive at the time.
Rowe said the average age of the soldiers in Vietnam soldiers was 18, with more than 33,000 of the 58,267 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington being 18 year olds.
“Ten years of our lives, our youth, were spent in war, 74 percent of these men were volunteers, they were not drafted, like the liberal media painted them as dropout draftees,” she said. “A hundred percent of the women were volunteers, they didn’t draft women in those days…I wanted to tell you all this because these men deserved a coming home, and this is it guys, this is your coming home.”
Rowe then asked the audience to show their appreciation toward the veterans.
“Welcome home!” attendees said in unison.
Dave Hambrick of Marietta, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, said each time he came home from Vietnam, he received either a negative or no reaction.
“This is probably the most moving experience we’ve had since we’ve been back,” said Hambrick, a retired Marine captain who served from 1964-85. “We really appreciate Donna Rowe, being a Vietnam veteran herself, she understands the experience.”
The keynote speaker for the event was Army Maj. Daniel Gade, who lost his leg when his Humvee was destroyed by an improvised explosive device in January 2005 near Ramadi, Iraq. He later went on to serve in President George W. Bush’s administration in 2007-08 and is now an instructor in the social science department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He’s also competed in several cycling and triathlon events.
Gade told the audience that the word “hero” is often overused. He said that athletes like Tim Tebow and even many veterans are incorrectly labeled heroes.
“Hero is an outcome,” Gade said. “Hero is not a person.”
Heroes are formed by a combination of character and a moment, Gade said.
“When we talk about people who are heroes, typically what we are talking about is people of great character, who have met with difficult circumstances and thrived through those circumstances,” he said. “Of course the term hero applies to many of you here today, but you would have been heroes whether or not you were wounded in action. You would have been heroes whether or not you ever went to combat, because the root of hero is in the idea of character.”
Gade said that character involves keeping physically, mentally and spiritually healthy.
“If you have character, then it doesn’t matter what the bad thing that happens to you is, because you’re going to thrive and get through it,” he said. “Heroes are people who recognize beforehand, before the race ever starts, that they must develop their character now in order to succeed when hard things happen in their life.
Gade said that veterans and non-veterans alike can be heroes.
“I like to serve as a gigantic warning sign, it doesn’t matter f you’re young or old, man or woman, there are things coming in your future that are hard things,” he said. “I would encourage you to think about what level of development is your character, is your character at a level that, when something bad happens, you can come out on the other side and get through it? When the bad thing happens, it’s just way too late to develop your character at that point…If you think about the kinds of decisions you’ll make today, whether or not to have that extra drink, whether or not to go workout, whether or not to obey the speed limit on the way home. I would encourage you to begin making those small hard right choices rather than the easy wrong choice. That way, your character will be developed, and when your character is developed, you’ll be able to go through the bad things and thrive.”
Gade joked with emcee Moby, a country music disk jockey, that Moby had told him the event would be non-partisan. While mentions of the upcoming election were rare, Moby did get in some shots at Democrats, including Barack and Michelle Obama and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Others in attendance included U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta), former Rep. Bob Barr and Cobb Commissioners Helen Goreham and JoAnn Birrell.