Vietnam War Era vets given a thank-you in Port Ludlow

PORT LUDLOW — Retired Navy Comdr. Jerry Hamilton was surprised when he learned U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer would honor Vietnam War Era veterans with a pinning ceremony in Port Ludlow.

The Chimacum-area veteran, who was one of 23 veterans who received pins Thursday evening at Port Ludlow Fire and Rescue’s headquarters, spent many of his years in the Navy in ordinance — nine of which were spent doing explosive ordinance disposal.

“In the civilian world that would be the bomb squad,” he said.

As the Vietnam War was coming nearing an end in 1973, Hamilton was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea where he cleaned ordinance from a canal so it could be reopened for shipping.

Hamilton served for 31 years in the Navy — joining the Navy a week after graduating from high school in 1955 — and has seen attitudes toward military personnel shift over the years.

“This is a complete 180,” he said. “It’s completely the opposite the way it was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.”

Hamilton said he was deployed during most of that time. He added that, looking back, it felt like the American people betrayed those who served in the military.

“I’m just glad to see Congressman Kilmer come out here and do that,” Hamilton said. “I was really surprised reading that in the paper and thought ‘what the heck, I’ll go and see what he’s got to say.’

“I like that recognition — not for me personally — but for the military in general,” Hamilton said.

Thursday was the fourth time Kilmer had hosted a pinning ceremony for Vietnam War era veterans this year, saying it has been long overdue for them to be recognized for their service.

Before the event in Port Ludlow, Kilmer’s office has presented pins to 223 veterans at events in Port AngelesOcean Shores and Elma. His staff said other ceremony will likely be planned across the Olympic Peninsula, though they haven’t yet been scheduled.

Veterans who served in active duty at any time between Nov. 1, 1955 and May 15, 1975 received commemorative pins.

Kilmer said that after each of the ceremonies he has had veterans tell him they have had difficulties healing scars that can’t be seen and that the recognition helps.

“That’s reason enough to do something like this, to have the community express gratitude,” Kilmer said.

Kilmer said 2.7 million Americans served during the Vietnam War and that when they returned home they were not met with the gratitude they deserved.

Kilmer is one of 10,000 commemorative partners nationwide who have volunteered to host veteran pinning events.

He represents the 6th Congressional District, which includes the North Olympic Peninsula. The Gig Harbor Democrat is running for reelection against Republican Douglas Dightman of Shelton.

Kilmer said he has seen a recent spike in the number of veterans asking his office to help them as they work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or encounter red tape with another part of the federal government.

He said one of the top challenges veterans are facing is the veterans health care system.

Kilmer was recently at the University of Washington in Tacoma where, he said, a student veteran was going without food because the VA was late in sending out GI Bill payments.

“A lot of folks when they’re grappling with the VA don’t think ‘oh I should call my member of Congress’ office,’ but literally half of our staff in the district is caseworkers and that’s why,” he said.

“Part of our job is to make government work better for people. If you served our country we need to have your back and that means you shouldn’t be left on your own trying to grapple with a bureaucracy.”

Helping Kilmer hand out the pins was Jefferson County Commissioner Kathleen Kler.

“It’s part of a healing of a wound I think still throbs in America and I’m grateful that Derek recognizes that and is trying to do something to acknowledge and honor the vets who came back to such a conflicted country,” Kler said.

Kler said she was one of those who protested the war. Over the years, she has learned of the impact the protests had on those who were drafted to fight.

“What I have learned since then is the personal hurt and wounds that it caused the veterans,” Kler said. “I’m here in part because I realize my protest, even while it was appropriate for what our government was doing, was harmful and hurt the people who served.

“This is me saying ‘thank you for what you did during a very difficult time.’ ”

By:  Jesse Major
Source: Peninsula Daily News