It took half a century, but Vietnam-era veterans are finally receiving long overdue recognition for their service and sacrifice.
The Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War is a nationwide effort to honor the soldiers who served during the 20-year conflict. The commemoration began on Memorial Day on May 28, 2012 and goes until Veterans Day on November 11, 2025, and includes events across the country, during which local veterans are acknowledged and thanked for their service. For many of Colorado’s 127,000 Vietnam-era veterans, it’s the first time they’ve been formally recognized.
“There were no ticker tape parades, no thank you for your service. There were none of the things that we associated with troops coming home after the world wars,” says Daniel Barber, a Vietnam veteran and retired Englewood High School history teacher.
As part of the national commemoration, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-7) invited Colorado’s Vietnam veterans to attend a special recognition ceremony in Lakewood. His office anticipated that about 20 to 30 veterans would respond, but they heard from nearly 700. Rep. Perlmutter’s office is now hosting eight separate ceremonies to honor the vets. Three have already taken place, and five more are planned in June, July, and August, with possibly more to come. “Our servicemen and women were given the worst kind of treatment when they came home,” says Rep. Perlmutter. “It may not be enough, but we’re doing something about it.”
Many soldiers who fought in the war were drafted out of high school, while others enlisted to allow for more choices on how they served, or so they could attend college on the G.I. bill, which provides educational assistance to active service members, veterans, and their dependents. The war, which officially lasted from November 1955 to April 1975, was increasingly unpopular in the U.S. as the years wore on, and many service members themselves attended to their duty without agreeing with the war’s purpose.
“Many of us did not go willingly. We did not go with flags waving. But we went,” says Barber, who was drafted just days after his 20th birthday and honored at the April 12 commemoration.
Barber served in an artillery unit at the Dong Ha Combat Base in 1969. He was manning a 50-caliber machine gun on the turret of a self-propelled howitzer when a grenade exploded nearby, raking him with shrapnel that permanently disabled his right arm. His best friend was killed in the attack. “That was the end of my Vietnam,” says Barber, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service.
More than 58,000 military personnel were killed in the war and another 153,000 were wounded. Of those fortunate enough to come home, 97 percent of Vietnam Veterans were honorably discharged. However, as the soldiers returned to the U.S., they were greeted not by celebration and thanks, but by fierce debate and protests over the war—and in some cases, anger.
John Harris graduated from Littleton High School in 1968 and joined the Army in 1969, where he served in both Korea and Vietnam. When he returned home through Oakland Army Base in California, Harris was told to leave the base in civilian clothes to avoid harassment from protesters. “I have been called a baby killer and several other names. Other veterans were spit on,” he says. “I served my country, I signed the contract, and then we were treated like dirt.” Harris is also a Gold Star father: His son, Sgt. Blake A. Harris, was killed in Iraq 10 years ago at the age of 22.
Harris’ first service recognition was at a ceremony at Brighton’s Prairie View High School in 2011. “A lot of old vets, including me, were crying,” he says. “It’s a recognition that has been many, many, many years coming.”
Darrell Green of Wheat Ridge, who joined the Naval Reserves during his senior year at Alameda High School so he could choose his branch of service, was also advised to ditch his uniform after returning home. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a thank you coming off the plane,” he says. “You were just lucky to come home sitting up.”
If you go: Rep. Perlmutter is hosting a total of eight ceremonies to honor Colorado’s Vietnam-era Veterans for their service, and commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. Upcoming ceremonies take place on June 1, July 6, July 21, August 3, and August 17, from 9:30-11:30 a.m. at Red Rocks Community College, 13300 6th Ave., Lakewood. For information on the ceremonies or to receive a commemorative lapel Pin, contact Rep. Perlmutter’s office at 303-274-7944 or visit his website.
Content originally published by 5280 Magazine on April 20, 2017.