'Blessed I came back': Vietnam veterans, surviving spouses honored at Air Force Enlisted Village
by Jim Thompson, Northwest Florida Daily News
More than 30 veterans of the Vietnam War or their surviving spouses were honored Friday at the Air Force Enlisted Village (AFEV) with lapel pins and certificates honoring their service in Vietnam or on the home front.
The AFEV observance was part of the ongoing United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, in which 900 Commemorative Partners ensure that the sacrifices of veterans and their families are not forgotten. The commemoration began in 2012 and will continue through 2025.
Among the veterans honored Friday was Woody Woodall, who served in supply and logistics with the Air Force in Vietnam for 18 months from 1968 to 1970. Woodall, who had already been in the Air Force for 10 years at the time, volunteered for Vietnam because he wasn't particularly fond of his stateside duty station in Maine, he said.
"I thought it was necessary," Woodall said of the war, which was not particularly popular among the American public at the time.
"It was a terrible war," Woodall added, but he stressed that he was "proud to be there" and "glad I served."
"And blessed that I came back.,"
After Vietnam, Woodall was sent to the Philippines, so he didn't experience the homecoming of many military personnel, who were often met with derision as they returned to the United States.
Woodall didn't have any quick explanation for the less-than-welcoming return.
Gloria Burgemeister receives a certificate and lapel pin honoring her as a surviving spouse of a Vietnam War veteran from an Air Force Sergeant Association - Chapter 554 member during Friday's Vietnam War Commemoration Ceremony at the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar. MICHAEL SNYDER/DAILY NEWS
"It was just the culture of the day, I guess," he said.
Woodall retains a sense of sadness for the families of the nearly 59,000 U.S. military personnel killed in Vietnam and for the families of the 1,500 American troops still listed as missing in action.
"I'm sad for the families and for the kids who never had a chance to meet their fathers," he said.
As far as the recognition now being made of Vietnam veterans through efforts like the ongoing Vietnam War Commemoration, Woodall said, "It's something that's long overdue."
Others honored Friday experienced Vietnam on the home front. Gloria Burgemeister's husband, then-Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Earl C. Burgemeister, served in Vietnam in 1969 and earned a Bronze Star for heroic or meritorious service or achievement.
To this day, Gloria Burgemeister doesn't know what her husband, who died in 1978, did to earn the medal.
"He never brought it up when he got home, and I never asked," she said.
She said that the challenge of raising a family alone while her husband was in Vietnam was eased by the presence of her extended family and by other military wives going through the same thing.
Retired Air Force Col. Ed Hubbard, who spent more than six years as a POW in Vietnam, speaks Friday during a Vietnam War Commemoration ceremony at the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar. MICHAEL SNYDER/DAILY NEWS
"We had a good camaraderie," Burgemeister said.
But how much she missed her husband was revealed when he suggested that they meet in Hawaii — halfway between Vietnam and the United States — whenever he was able to take leave from his duties.
She said she declined, because she knew that once she saw him, she would have wanted to stay with him.
"I could never have left him."
Burgemeister said she was never particularly bothered by the angry reception that met many of the troops returning from Vietnam, preferring to keep her thoughts close to home.
"It didn't bother me," she said. "We were a happy family."
Prior to receiving their lapel pins and certificates Friday from members of Chapter 554 of the Air Force Sergeants Association, the veterans and surviving spouses heard from retired Air Force Col. Ed Hubbard, a local Vietnam veteran who spent more than six years as a prisoner of war.
Hubbard recounted his experiences as a POW. He talked about how he and some fellow prisoners had to work to keep a new prisoner alive by force-feeding him bowls of rice until his health stabilized. Unfortunately, the prisoner was subsequently placed in solitary confinement and died.
"When we were in captivity, we had to hang on to whatever we could," Hubbard said as he recalled the religious services held among POWs every Sunday. "It made no difference what religion you were or if you had any religion," he said.
Hubbard added that his attitude played a pivotal role in getting him through his experience as a POW.
Part of his approach was "giving thanks for my good fortune because I was an American, and it doesn't get any better than that," he said.
The nonprofit AFEV provides housing to the surviving spouses of retired enlisted Air Force, Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve personnel.
On a space-available basis, AFEV serves surviving spouses of enlisted personnel from other military services; retired enlisted Air Force and other military service couples; spouses of active-duty military personnel who die or are killed on active duty; and in other circumstances, mothers of active-duty service members or on a temporary basis, active-duty personnel who need housing in disaster situations.
More photos can be found at https://www.facebook.com/AirForceEnlistedVillage
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