As the nameless park awoke on the frozen Saturday morning of Nov. 15, the dormant grass crinkled under footsteps of veterans from a war decades ago.
With jackets and pins, patches and hats declaring their service, the men of the Vietnam War assembled on the lawn of the Cabarrus County park that would be named in their honor that day.
The 208th Army Band played throughout the ceremony, which also featured the posting of the colors by the American Legion Post 51 Color Guard and the Cabarrus County Honor Guard. Guest speakers roused patriotism and gratitude long overdue for the veterans in attendance who returned home to an ungrateful nation as well as homage for those across the country who never made it home at all.
Author Ilario Pantano, director of the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs and a retired second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, spoke of the treatment of Vietnam veterans and the respect owed to all veterans.
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“Boys and girls will decide if they will put on a uniform tomorrow depending on how we treat the veterans of today,” said Pantano.
“This was a country that knew war,” Pantano said to the Vietnam veterans seated at the front and sides of the stage. “How could we forget you?”
With intensity in his stare and a commanding presence in his voice, Pantano continued: “We are so spoiled because you are so good at doing your job, of keeping the wolf (from) the door.”
Calling it their “solemn responsibility” to wear their colors to remind Americans of their service, Pantano paused and addressed the veterans one last time before surrendering the podium: “Welcome home. God bless you.”
Joe Galloway, a Vietnam war correspondent, author and Concord resident, stepped forward in a black overcoat, plaid scarf, leather gloves and Army 7th Cavalry Stetson hat.
“Forty-nine years ago, I was laying on my belly. The air was full of lead, and a moment before I was thinking about a hot cup of coffee,” reminisced Galloway, who was the only civilian to receive the bronze star for bravery in the Vietnam War.
“All of the sudden, the world fell in. I was cursing my buttons and zippers for keeping me that much farther off the ground,” said Galloway, whose 1992 bestselling book, “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” was the inspiration for the 2002 film “We Were Soldiers.”
“In four days and four nights we lost 234 young Americans and another 300 wounded,” Galloway said of the Battle of La Drang in 1965. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who didn’t make it. They died so we could live.
“We owe them a sacred obligation to work every day to the maximum to make this world a better place. We pay our debts. ...”
“You fought a long, hard, dirty war and came back to no respect,” Galloway said. “Welcome home at last.”
Galloway concluded with a look around the park, saying, “I’m so delighted we got something that belongs to us – finally – in this hometown that I am proud to call mine.”
Cabarrus County native and retired Lt. Col. Russ Olson, who served from 1972 to 1973, couldn’t hold back the tears when the name “Joe Eubanks” was read aloud. Eubanks, a classmate of Olson, died in Vietnam in 1972.
“I think about him every day,” Olsen said. “I am thankful that the great people of Cabarrus County recognize the sacrifice of our veterans of all wars. It’s about service to our country,” he said.
Retired Marines Tommy Russell and Bob Cole read the names of 28 Cabarrus County Vietnam Veterans who were killed while serving. Veterans and others in attendance paid respect with bowed heads and covers removed.
Individual names and hometowns were called, each with a single bell chime. Finally Cole, like many others, succumbed to tears, sending a reminder of the human price paid for freedom.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter presented the 50th anniversary Vietnam War commemoration flag and spoke of the great tragedies of the war including the prisoners of war who have yet to be recognized for their service and endurance of suffering.
Kicklighter called Vietnam POW Major Jose Maria Anzaldua Jr. from the crowd and presented certificate and pin to the humble hero, recognizing his service. Kicklighter asked the people for help in locating other unrecognized heroes.
“We need you to help us to find the prisoners of war who have not received their certificates,” said Kicklighter, who praised the city of Concord as the first municipality in North Carolina to become a Commemorative Partner with the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration. He celebrated the park as a way to “remember the veterans in their hometowns, to honor them where they live.”
Local veterans began the movement to rename the 90-acre park in October 2013. At the July 21 meeting of the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, veterans spoke to the significance of naming the park in honor of the men and women who fought in the Vietnam War.
The commissioners unanimously voted to approve the park’s renaming. Since its construction the park at 760 Orphanage Road in Concord had never been officially named, although it had been referred to as “North Cabarrus Park.”
Liz Poole, chairwoman of the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, welcomed the crowd, thanking the veterans for their sacrifices. The park’s new name, she said, will remind us all “to honor, to respect, to remember and thank the soldiers of the Vietnam War.”
“Everytime a vet sees this flag,” Kicklighter said as the commemoration flag was presented to hang over the park, “they will know that a grateful nation has remembered.”
Correspondent Marty Price contributed to this story.