Welcoming Heroes Home, 50 Years Later: AFA Gathers to Remember Vietnam
May 17, 2023 | By Patrick Reardon
The west end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., transformed into “Camp Legacy” for three days in May in honor and remembrance of those who served in Vietnam 50 years ago. The public event included museum exhibits, opportunities for photos in static Vietnam-era helicopters, a chance to meet Vietnam veterans from all branches of service, and—most importantly—offer them a proper welcome home.
More than 90 organizations, including the Air & Space Forces Association, contributed to the national event planned by the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, but of the dozens of exhibit tents at Camp Legacy, AFA’s was one of the busiest.
AFA’s Vietnam 50th Steering Committee, a volunteer task force comprised of AFA Field and Committee Leaders, assembled three full days’ worth of interactive panel discussions featuring firsthand accounts from Vietnam-era veterans and family members on topics ranging from “Wild Weasel” war stories and lessons in airpower to the effect the Vietnam War had on family life. For those on stage, the event offered an opportunity to reconnect and share their stories—for those in the audience, it was an exclusive glimpse into the legacies and sacrifices of Airmen who were denied a fitting hero’s welcome when the war ended 50 years ago.
“The saddest day in my military career occurred in February of 1977, when I reported to the White House for duty on the presidential staff,” said Len Vernamonti, AFA’s National Treasurer who also served as Chairman of AFA’s Vietnam 50th Steering Committee. “As I was completing my in-processing, the guy looks at me and says, ‘Major Vernamonti, there’s one more thing … while you’re assigned to the White House, you will not wear your uniform in the District of Columbia. It is too disruptive.’ And I can still feel that today, 46 years later. And so I said, ‘We’re gonna do something about that.’”
When it came to combat experience, there was no shortage on stage. During a panel on special operations, the packed AFA booth heard firsthand from a pararescue jumper, an HH-53 “Jolly Green” helicopter commander, a forward air controller, and an AC-119K Stinger sensor operator. Another panel featured Charles “Chuck” DeBellevue, the last Active-duty American ACE and the leading ACE of the Vietnam War, who related how he scored six air-to-air victories in 1972. Yet another panel hosted four Airmen who flew dozens of combat missions during Operation Linebacker II.
But the stories weren’t only about fights from the cockpit—a panel of Vietnam veterans’ family members also shared their perspective of the war from the homefront, particularly during a time when protests over America’s involvement in Vietnam were so vitriolic. Sally DeBellevue explained how she would lie that her husband was waiting for her at home so she wouldn’t have to explain she had no idea where in Southeast Asia he was. Debbie Barbee told her story of moving to Bangkok in 1972 to be closer to her husband, Larry, who was flying Stingers at Da Nang.
Two of the panel’s speakers are relatives of Airmen who went MIA in Vietnam and are now the namesakes of Air Force awards. One was Janine Sijan-Rozina, who was 13 when her older brother Lance P. Sijan was shot down over Laos in 1967. Gravely injured, he spent 45 days surviving the jungle before he was captured by the North Vietnamese. After enduring nearly a month of abuse and torture at Hỏa Lò Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”), he eventually died—but the complete story of his heroism was yet untold.
“The first time I heard the words ‘emaciated,’ ‘interrogated,’ ‘tortured,’ was when he received the [posthumous] Medal of Honor in the White House and I was sitting as a 22-year-old, I believe, listening to the citation. Nobody had told us his story,” Sijan-Rozina said. She has since taken it upon herself to be the “gatekeeper of his story,” and spent 10 years creating a documentary about her brother and his service in Vietnam, which was screened at AFA’s tent.
The other speaker was Colleen Shine, whose father Anthony C. Shine was shot down on the border of North Vietnam and Laos in 1972. His fate was unknown for 24 years, and although officials were looking for his remains, it took his family to discover the true story.
“While the Air Force might love these men, and the Department of Defense might love them, they don’t love him as much as we do. So we got vocal. We got active,” Colleen Shine said. Shine also emphasized her involvement in Air Force Families Forever, a continuing care program that connects the families of fallen Airmen and Guardians to foster a community of resilient survivors. In fact, Shine introduced Sijan-Rozina to the program just two days before the Vietnam 50th Commemoration—just one example of how the gathering helped salve 50-year-old wounds.
“The personal connections made during this engagement were astounding,” said Linda McMahon, a member of AFA’s Field Council who is serving as the Vietnam 50th Steering Committee’s Chief of Staff. “I feel privileged and humbled to have been a part of this mission to our fellow veterans.”
On the second day of the event, AFA moved to the big stage for an all-service panel of retired four-star officers—all Vietnam veterans—assembled by AFA’s Steering Committee and moderated by Vernamonti. The panel included the 15th Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman; the 26th National Guard Bureau Chief and former AFA President Gen. Craig R. McKinley; the 33rd Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Dennis J. Reimer; Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen.
“I was honored to serve. I am still honored to come to meetings like this and look at young men and women, and people who are our age, and thank you for what you do,” said McKinley, who also serves on AFA’s Senior Leader Advisory Group. “I think Jim Mattis may have said this, there’s no God-given right that this country will survive. We have to fight for it. We have to want to win. And we have to do our part, and I commend everyone in here who has done their part.”
“AFA was honored to have been associated with such an outstanding event honoring our Vietnam veterans,” said AFA’s Chairman of the Board Bernie Skoch. “The panels we hosted were without exception moving and tremendously informative. On occasions like this we are reminded that America owes these brave men and women a debt we can never fully repay.”
While the historic event on the National Mall has ended, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end is continuing throughout the year. The Air & Space Forces Association is commemorating the 50th anniversary throughout its two main conferences, the AFA Warfare Symposium held in Colorado in March and the upcoming Air, Space & Cyber Conference this September.
AFA Chapters around the world are also gathering to honor and remember the heroes, memories, and sacrifices made in Vietnam. To read about their events, learn about upcoming gatherings, and submit your own stories, visit www.AFA.org/Vietnam50.