George J. Bennett Sr., left, and Arsenio “Pastor” Credo, right, were among the hundreds of Alaskans who deployed to Vietnam during the war and were collectively welcomed into their homes at an event hosted by the Southeast Intertribal Collective for National Vietnam War Veterans Day on Facebook Live on March 29, 2021. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
When many Vietnam veterans returned home after deployments to Southeast Asia, they were denigrated, cursed, called baby killers and murderers.
Today, nearly 50 years after the end of that war and on Vietnam War Veterans Day, groups across Alaska and across the country honored their sacrifice with traditional dances and the affirmation of their sacrifice.
âIt was very different from when we first came home,â said George J. Bennett Sr., a veteran of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division and a host of the event. “In 1968, when I got home, some of us were actually afraid to come home.”
This empty return, returning to a country unable and unwilling to recognize the sacrifice and horror of this distant conflict, was something that weighed on many, said Justin McDonald, who helped organize the Zoom event.
âAs a Native American, as a veteran myself, we were taught to hold our veterans in high regard, like our elders. It really struck me how our veterans were treated, âMcDonald said above the zoom. âIt’s not just an empty gesture to say, welcome home. Say it so you know they are feeling it. Say it with emotion.
Groups sang traditional songs of honor, peace and victory in recognition of the veterans of this bitter war. Bennett mentioned the need to recognize all who served.
âHe recognizes us all. He recognized all the soldiers and women who served. It takes five people to support one person on the ground, âBennett said. âThis is called logistics. He brings people back to base camps and on Navy ships. ”
This event is as much about recognizing the veterans as it is about reconciling the bitter welcome many of them received upon their return from the war, Bennett said.
âVietnam Veterans Day changes the perception of society and the way they see us. They approach us, they shake our hands, they thank us for our service. It means a lot. It’s heartwarming, it gives us strength, âsaid Bennett. âFor some of us, it gives us the opportunity to share our experiences. For some, who have had horrible experiences, we don’t want to share this. But we can share our laughs and the good experiences we have had.
A legacy of lasting injuries
The war was brutal and bitter, the jungles and highlands of Vietnam far from the cool climates of Alaska.
âWe have been tested, as many of our brothers and sisters have been tested in defense of our country and our tribes,â said Sasha Soboleff in the opening dedication. “This kind of conflict is all over the world.”
Many, including 226 Alaskan Natives and American Indians, have not returned home, according to military records.
âSadly, many of us gave our lives. And those who have come home carry the wounds of war and it will never go away, âBennett said. “It is something that is ingrained in us and something that we will have to live with.”
Bennett recalled once he met another Hoonah resident and Native Alaskan soldier James Lindoff on a fire base in Vietnam.
âWe were in Vietnam together. James was part of the 101st Airborne Division. I was in the 25th Infantry Division. Two different units, two different locations. His unit came to our base camp and I didn’t know he was there. One afternoon, I was walking towards the refectory. I saw this guy coming down the track in front of me. Very quickly, James recognized me. The only people who called me George McKinley were people who grew up with me in Hoonah. It was by chance that we crossed paths in Vietnam, âBennett said. âIt was really great to see my brother. James and I grew up together in Hoonah. We fished together, we hunted together, we played ball in high school together, we partied together.
The 101st had sent a detachment to reinforce the location of the 25th ID following reports that the base was going to be hit, including Lindoff, Bennett said.
âThere was almost four, five months of fighting. We were pretty busy there. We were helping special forces back then, âLindoff said. “It was the first time that I had to break the belt of my M-60 (machine gun) to prevent it from firing, it was so hot.”
Alaskan natives and Native Americans are joining the armed forces at a higher rate than almost any other ethnic group, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
âWe have taken this oath to defend our country against foreign and domestic enemies,â Bennett said. âAs Indigenous people, we fought not only for this country, but for our ancestral tribal homelands, our tribes, our clans, our families. Thank you today for being part of this great generation of individuals who have fought.
â¢ Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or [email protected]