Vietnam War photos on display ahead of speedway event

A collection of images from the Vietnam War by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly is on tour in North Carolina through the month of March.

The photos are on exhibit in advance of the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Celebration planned for March 31 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, where organizers hope to draw 60,000 people or more.

Kennerly spent more than two years in Vietnam covering the war and won a Pulitzer in 1972 for his work there.

“What a lot of people forget is that those of us who were combat photographers spent a lot of time with the troops. We became friends with them,” Kennerly said in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “We were out there getting shot at right alongside of them, so we have a particular affinity for who they are and what they went through.”

Kennerly plans to attend the homecoming event in Concord, where his photos also will be displayed.

The event is being organized by the USO of North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Broadcasters and the speedway.

John Falkenbury, president of the USO-NC, said that more than 54,000 people had reserved free tickets for the event as of Monday, and that about 7,000 tickets are still available. The Charlie Daniels Band, George Clinton, the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus and others will perform at the day-long celebration, and dozens of public and private agencies that specialize in veterans’ issues will be there to offer their services. The N.C. Vietnam Pilots Association will display vintage helicopters; an 80-percent scale traveling replica of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall will be on exhibit, and the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team will perform.

Falkenbury said the event has the potential to be the biggest of its kind ever held in the state.

Except for one last fall in Fayetteville, there were never large celebrations to welcome back soldiers who had served in Vietnam. Many returned alone or in small groups, and because public sentiment had turned against the war by the time it ended in 1975, many service members downplayed their Vietnam experience.

“Some people say 40 years is a long time to wait to have a homecoming,” Falkenbury said. “We say it’s never too late to recognize and celebrate the sacrifices made by those men and women who served.”

The Concord event will serve three purposes, Falkenbury said: to celebrate the veterans’ contributions to their country; to offer them help if they need it; and to educate people who don’t know much about U.S. involvement in the conflict between communist and non-communist forces in Vietnam.

The photo exhibit is part of the education element, Falkenbury said, which is why the USO built four identical displays that it will move around the state. Sen. Richard Burr issued a statement about the photo exhibit Monday, saying it “represents an opportunity to connect with other veterans in our own communities and honor the sacrifices our servicemen and women made in that conflict.”

For ticket information for the homecoming celebration in Concord, go to www.charlottemotorspeedway.com or www.ncbroadcast.com.