On Vietnam War Veterans Day, Vets Turn Out For Buddies Who Didn't Return

Kim Joiner Vietnam Memorial Wall
Acting Principal Deputy Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Kim Joiner attends an event for Vietnam Veterans Day in 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

On Friday, a Vietnam veterans' weekly therapy group and their Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist were at the iconic wall that is their memorial to mark National Vietnam War Veterans Day in honor of their buddies and tens of thousands of others who didn't come home.

For former Air Force Sgt. Tony Mustifa, the special name etched on the memorial's black granite wall, along with more than 58,300 others, is that of his friend, Airman 1st Class Tony Curtis Foster, who was 21 years old when he was killed on Dec. 4, 1969.

Mustifa, 69, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, served with military police providing air base security. He said he came to the ceremonial wreath laying at the wall to "honor my buddies, my comrades. It's uplifting to be here."

He is part of a group that meets every Wednesday at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center with Dr. Maria Llorente, a psychiatrist with the VA for 24 years, who deals with the invisible wounds of war that never completely heal.

"I've been a geriatric psychiatrist for 24 years," working with World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans to develop coping mechanisms for the stress they feel, she said.

"You have to understand that combat is a life-changing event. The things that you experience stay with you for a lifetime. The more exposure [to combat], the greater the likelihood" of after-effects, she said.

The group sessions with veterans are one way to begin to deal with complex issues, she said. "It's veterans helping other veterans."

Earlier, Kim Joiner, acting principal deputy assistant for public affairs at the Defense Department, and Gary Tallman, Veterans Affairs executive director in the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, placed a wreath at the base of the wall. It read: "Service Valor Sacrifice -- A Grateful Nation Honors You."

"Publicly and individually presenting a Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin to the men and women representing all who served during this challenging time in our nation's history will be the privilege of a lifetime," Joiner said in a statement.

The free lapel pins are available at Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores, some commissary locations, and at commemoration events.

In a brief interview, retired Army Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, director of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration program, said, "The country made a major mistake 50 years ago" in failing to honor Vietnam veterans for duty done.

"We're giving the country an opportunity to fix that" through a series of events nationwide leading to March 29, 2025, to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1975 official ending of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, he added.

In remarks to the veterans and Gold Star families, Jackson said the ceremony at the wall was one of 1,600 events Friday nationwide. "It's a day of remembrance," he said.

He noted that the average age of those who served in Vietnam was 23.

"What we remember is that war takes its toll on young people," he said.

Jackson said about nine million were in the service during the official Vietnam War period of Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975. Of that total, the best estimate is that about 6.5 million are still living.

Of those still living, about three million served in-country in Vietnam, Jackson said, and the commemoration program has thus far distributed about 2.3 million lapel pins.

The Vietnam War Commemoration programs were launched in 2012 under the administration of President Barack Obama.

In 2017, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation, declaring, "Throughout this Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and every March 29 thereafter, we will honor all those who answered our nation's call to duty."

"We vow to never again confuse personal disapproval of war with prejudice against those who honorably wear the uniform of our Armed Forces. With conviction, our nation pledges our enduring respect, our continuing care, and our everlasting commitment to all Vietnam veterans," Trump said.

On Twitter early Friday, Trump said, "On this Vietnam War Veterans Day, we celebrate the brave Vietnam Veterans and all of America's veterans. Thank you for your service to our great Nation!"

Following the ceremony, former Army Sgt. Bill Gray, 72, of Silver Spring, Maryland, went to a section of the wall he has visited many times.

Gray, who suffered a leg wound from shrapnel while serving with Bravo Co., 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, in Vietnam's Central Highlands, pointed to the names of three friends: Spc. 4 John Montgomery, platoon Sgt. Gene White, and Pfc. Edward Morrow.

Gray said he was on patrol on April 3, 1969, while his friends stayed behind with another squad. He returned to find that a mortar round had killed all three.

His eyes welled up. "I was one of the lucky ones," he said.

Veterans who need help finding a Vietnam commemoration event where they can receive their pin can call the commemoration office at 877-387-9951 or email whs.vnwar50th@mail.mil.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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