AFA’s Year-Long Vietnam War Commemoration Reaches Powerful Conclusion at National Cathedral

January 19, 2024   |   By Patrick Reardon

Hundreds gathered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13 for a special ceremony honoring Vietnam Veterans, former prisoners of war, Medal of Honor recipients, and Gold Star families. The event, titled “A Celebration of Character & Courage,” was the long-awaited climax to AFA’s year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of combat operations in Vietnam and the return of American POWs in 1973.

A year in the making, the celebration was turned into a reality by AFA’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Committee, a volunteer task force comprised of AFA Field and Committee Leaders who led the effort to fund the event and coordinated with 40 partner organizations, including the Gary Sinise Foundation and Wreaths Across America, to bring the commemoration to the National Cathedral.

“We’re here to honor the service and sacrifice of the 6 million, in all military services, who answered our nation’s call, especially the 58,000 names that appear on the Wall, the over 1,800 still missing and unaccounted for, the 300,000 who succumbed due to their service, and over 2 million who are no longer with us. We also honor all other military members and civilians who supported those who served in theater. We are … honored to be here with Gold Star wives and families, as well as the many other families who endured hardship and absence of loved ones who served,” said Bernie Skoch, AFA’s Chair of the Board, in his opening remarks at the convocation.

The ceremony also featured addresses from former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer, USA (Ret.), who served two tours in Vietnam, and Colleen Shine, the Gold Star Daughter of Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony C. Shine who was shot down in North Vietnam on December 2, 1972. Shine was missing in action for 24 years until his remains were repatriated for honorable burial in 1996. Since then, his daughter Colleen has been a vocal advocate for military, veterans, and Gold Star Families of POW/MIA veterans.

“It’s been said that there were a million Vietnam wars—each family had their own, each one a parable. Yet from that place of unfathomable trauma, isolation, and loss, through great resilience, community, and connections, in the aftermath of sorrow, you focused on your blessings, steeled your resolve and persevered. You are the living legacies of your loved ones strong and of good courage,” Colleen Shine told the congregation. “Those of us impacted by the Vietnam War are a powerful force of extraordinary experience, character, courage, and patriotism. We are also a support for one another. You are never alone.”

Colleen Shine, Gold Star Daughter, speaks at the Celebration of Character & Courage, Vietnam War 50th Anniversary event at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 2024. Photo by Tsukamoto/Air & Space Forces Magazine

A prerecorded message from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was also shown, during which Austin shared how his uncle, who served in Vietnam as a Green Beret, has been a symbol of character and courage throughout his own career.

“[My uncle’s generation] served in difficult circumstances and divided times and, all too often, they came home to heckling and insults, and not to the hugs and thanks that they deserved,” Austin said. “After the war, many Vietnam vets did their country another service: They hung in there, and they worked to build bridges, and to strengthen the bonds of citizenship, and to ensure that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans like me came home to the embrace of a grateful nation. … I see over and over how America’s military today was shaped and strengthened by those who came before. So, to our Vietnam veterans, we thank you again. And we again salute your service. May God bless you.”

The ceremony was accompanied by music and hymns sung by the West Point Glee Club. The choir was conducted by Col. Len Vernamonti, USAF (Ret.), a veteran of the Vietnam War and the Chairman of AFA’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Committee.

“Most of the members of the West Point Glee Club Alumni were my fellow Vietnam veterans. They had all made a special effort to participate because of the importance of the event to them personally,” Vernamonti said. “Perhaps my most meaningful moment occurred when I led the combined choirs and the congregation in the singing of the fourth stanza of our National Anthem. I’d like to believe that Francis Scott Key wrote that verse especially for occasions such as these.”

Col. Len Vernamonti, USAF (Ret.), a veteran of the Vietnam War and the Chairman of AFA’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Committee, led the the West Point Glee Club choir at Celebration of Character & Courage, Vietnam War 50th Anniversary event at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 2024. Photo by Tsukamoto/Air & Space Forces Magazine

After the ceremony at the National Cathedral concluded, the assembly proceeded to the Washington Hilton for a reception. Vietnam veterans received official commemoration pins, shared their stories with Wreaths Across America Radio, and bonded with fellow servicemembers and families over their shared experiences.

The “Celebration of Character & Courage” marked the end of a year of AFA-led Vietnam commemorations around the nation. Since the start of 2023, AFA’s Chapters have been hosting events to honor Vietnam-era veterans and families, living and past, in their areas—from Linden, Texas, where AFA Texoma memorialized the last enlisted Airman killed in Vietnam, to the coasts of Vietnam itself, where two AFA members organized an impromptu ceremony aboard a cruise ship for more than 100 veterans of the war.

On the national level, AFA participated in the national “Welcome Home!” event in May on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., when AFA assembled three full days of interactive panel discussions featuring firsthand accounts from Vietnam veterans and family members. At AFA’s 2023 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, five Vietnam POWs—all Airmen—were honored on the main stage and featured in panels and talks throughout the week.

“I truly feel that we achieved our primary purpose of helping our veterans and their families come to understand and believe that the phrase ‘Welcome home and thank you for your service’ is not just a common pleasantry, but an actual expression of appreciation from a grateful nation for their service and sacrifice,” Vernamonti said.

A recording of the ceremony at the National Cathedral is available to watch here. The full photo gallery can be found here.

To learn more about AFA’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and submit your own stories, visit