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The Vietnam War represented one of the most tumultuous times in American history. The nation was split between those who believed the conflict was just and those who saw it as immoral.
Because of that, many Vietnam veterans who returned home after having served their country received little fanfare. No town parades were thrown, no throngs of people turned out at the airport to celebrate their homecoming, and their bravery was not hailed as the model of the American spirit. In fact, reports from the time indicate some veterans were berated when they returned by angry protesters who could not separate the men from the war they found so abhorrent.
As time has passed, many have sought to rectify that reaction. The reverence shown to those in the armed forced, returning from their own controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has proved to be a stark reminder of how poorly those who sacrificed during the Vietnam War were treated.
To show these men and women the honor they deserve, Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day has been established in Connecticut. The day, which will be held annually on March 30, is designed to be a day where veterans of that difficult war are thanked for their bravery and celebrated for their sacrifice.
And the first celebration is scheduled to take place in Cheshire.
“The Vietnam Veterans’ Committee was looking for a venue to hold a celebration and they were looking at the Yale Bowl,” stated Cheshire High School social studies department chair Ralph Zingarella, who is spearheading the event. “They thought the Bowl might be too big, so they contacted me to see if Cheshire might be interested.”
Zingarella, who teaches a class at CHS about Vietnam and has dedicated much of his time over the last several years to assisting veterans, has become a leading voice in the state in helping to recognize Vietnam veterans. In 2007, Zingarella helped bring The Wall that Heals, a scaled-down replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., to Cheshire. The wall was displayed in Cheshire for days, allowing residents to come and visit, while opening ceremonies featured speakers and local and state dignitaries. Students were also an integral part, helping to create posters honoring local veterans and their service.
When Zingarella was contacted about Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day, he jumped at the chance to include Cheshire.
“I thought to myself, 'here we go again,'” said Zingarella, with a laugh. “I know how much hard work it takes with an event like this but, if you're doing it for the veterans, it is worth it.”
The estimates are that between 5,000 and 6,000 people would attend the event, a total that would look relatively small in the spacious Yale Bowl, but will fill a Cheshire locale. Zingarella stated that specifics of the ceremony were still being ironed out, with the event scheduled to take place on April 10 at the Maclary Athletic Complex.
There is also the issue of logistics, and thousands of people pouring into Cheshire will require coordination between many different departments.
Zingarella has already contacted police and fire personnel, and Town administrators, and details will be worked out once plans are finalized.
“This time, I am more of a follower than a leader,” said Zingarella, explaining the difference between this event and The Wall that Heals. “The Vietnam Veterans Committee is handling most of it.”
Yet, Zingarella and his students plan to be intimately involved.
There is a plan to invite Governor Dannel Malloy and a desire to have former American Idol contestant, and Connecticut native, Katie Stevens sing at the event.
“It is very important to help veterans and show them how much they are appreciated,” said Jack Senft, a student who will be helping Zingarella with the particulars of the event. “Anything we can do for them is a good thing.”
Fellow student Samantha Kolpack was in eighth grade when The Wall that Heals came to Cheshire, and she remembers how moving it was to see the memorial and be at the ceremony with the veterans.
“It was a way for us to show our appreciation, and this is no different,” she insisted. “Meeting them, and hearing their stories is always wonderful.”
How students will be directly involved in the ceremony is unclear right now, but Zingarella plans to have as many involved as possible. It is not only a way to honor veterans, he believes, but also a way to show an older generation that students do truly care about them.
“Unfortunately, statements are made that students know nothing about the war and don't care about the veterans. It just isn't true,” said Zingarella. “The veterans, at least in Cheshire, have not been forgotten, and this will be another way to dispel that myth.”