CLINTON, Miss. (BP) – It was the most controversial point of the most controversial time in post-Civil War America. And as the country marks 50 years since the Vietnam War’s conclusion, churches can be a part of honoring those who served.
The conflict was distinctive for various reasons said Len Vernamonti, a captain in the Air Force who served from 1973-74 out of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“It was the first war in which troops were blamed totally for the outcome,” he told Baptist Press.
“We were spit on. Things were thrown at us. This went on for years.”
The worst day of his military career, he noted, came in February of 1977. The Carter administration had formed a team to address efficiency in government and Vernamonti was asked to join. He spent two-and-a-half years there but had to adhere to one thing.
As long as he walked the streets of Washington, D.C., Vernamonti couldn’t wear his uniform, he was told.
Too disruptive, he heard.
The response from many in the general public back then points to the importance of the public’s involvement now.
“The worst thing that can happen is if the only people involved in honoring [Vietnam veterans] are those like me,” he said. “It’s not the closure we’re trying to achieve. Other Americans need to welcome these folks and thank them for their service.”
U.S. combat operations ended in Vietnam in January 1973, with American prisoners of war released over the next couple of months. On March 29, the last U.S. military unit left the country.
Approximately 58,000 American troops died alongside 1.6 million North and South Vietnamese soldiers. Civilian deaths reached 2 million.
Another infamous day remained. On April 29, 1975, with 150,000 enemy troops near the doorstep, nearly 100 choppers evacuated 7,000 evacuees over 24 hours during the fall of Saigon. Many choppers – including those piloted by desperate South Vietnamese – were then pushed into the ocean off American ships to make room for evacuees.
“When we took those last Marines out, you could see the [North Vietnamese] tanks entering the city,” former pilot Col. Gerry Berry, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), said of that day. “It was absolutely over at that point.”
Destined to serve
Len Vernamonti, Sr., an Italian immigrant who grew up in a South Philly ghetto, went on to fly with the Fourteenth Air Force Flying Tigers in World War II. He covered several areas but stuck mostly to China, where he finished the war running reconnaissance missions over the Japanese.
The last place he flew out of was Hanoi in northern Vietnam. His son would also leave that country 29 years later, but on the southern end in Saigon and under far different circumstances. The younger Vernamonti also had four uncles serve during World War II as well with the Air Force and Army.
After Vietnam and his term serving alongside the Carter administration, Len Vernamonti, Jr. settled down. He had a wife and two kids and eventually became a grandfather while serving as a Baptist layman in several churches. Business success came through his own companies and with others as a consultant. He tried to retire several times, but kept getting calls to join one group or another. He claims the fifth retirement, taken in 2019, will stick.
He’s also painfully aware other servicemen didn’t fare as well in their return.
“Two of my classmates from the Academy committed suicide,” he said. “One of them I saw in ’83 at my 20th high school reunion. He was just barely 40 years old, but looked 90. We learned that a few months later he shot himself.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially diagnosed until 1980, but veterans carried it alongside crippling drug addiction and rampant homelessness for years.
Vernamonti serves as the chairman of the AFA Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Committee. The group encourages others to mark the anniversary through a variety of ways that honor those who served as well as their families.
It can be as simple as designating a Sunday and inviting Vietnam veterans and their families to attend. Recognize them during the worship hour, and of course, thank them for their service.
Churches or the local Baptist association can request special pins for the occasion through the Vietnam War Commemoration Office. Vernamonti can be reached for more information at [email protected].
Such events have started. In February, a crowd of about 400 gathered in Linden, Texas, to mark the 50th anniversary of the burial of the last enlisted person killed in Vietnam.
“We had a whole bunch of members of his family, including his mother and a daughter he never knew he had,” said Vernamonti. “He died before he even knew his wife was pregnant.”