National recognition

Last Thursday, Pat Toomey and Martina White honored Vietnam War-era veterans on the first anniversary of National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

A hero’s honor: Robert J. DeSousa, an Iraq War veteran and state director for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, talks about his admiration for the Vietnam War veterans last Thursday. Toomey and state Rep. Martina White welcomed Vietnam War-era vets to the FOP Lodge 5 to honor their service. JOHN COLE/TIMES PHOTO

It was long overdue, but the day had finally arrived.

Last Thursday, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and state Rep. Martina White welcomed Vietnam War-era veterans and their families to the FOP Lodge 5 for a ceremony to honor their service on the first anniversary of National Vietnam Veterans Day.

March 29 of this year marked the 45th anniversary of the last American combat troops exiting Vietnam. Despite the war claiming over 58,000 American lives, it wasn’t until last year that the United States officially starting recognizing March 29 as National Vietnam Veterans Day. Decades prior, starting from President Richard Nixon’s administration up until now, presidents have universally recognized this day as Vietnam Veterans Day through proclamations, but it was not signed into law until 2017.

Last year, Toomey and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly introduced legislation that was later signed by President Donald Trump to make this the day the law of the land.

Toomey, son of a U.S. Marine who served during the Korean War era, stated the need for a holiday to honor veterans who he believes were not given the proper recognition.

“The sad truth is, during the Vietnam era, America was divided, sometimes bitterly divided,” said Toomey. “And the tragedy of that moment in our history, in my view, is that some people who felt very, very strongly opposed to the war took out and vented to their anger on the men and women who were serving.”

The approximate 150 Vietnam-era veterans, accompanied by their families, filled up the Michael G. Lutz room in Lodge 5 and began the event reciting the Pledge of Allegiance led by state Sen. John Sabatina. Nate Fulton, of the Philadelphia Police Department, sang the national anthem.

Before introducing White and Toomey, Robert J. DeSousa, state director for Toomey, talked about his admiration for the Vietnam War veterans. DeSousa, an Iraq War veteran, detailed a story from his travels on his way to the airport when getting ready to depart for war. He described how, at every turn in the journey, they were greeted with gratitude and this he credits with the work of the veterans being honored that day.

“And why?” asked DeSousa. “Because the Vietnam veterans said, ‘Never again.’ Because the Vietnam veterans said you honor the man in uniform, regardless of whether you agree with the conflict. For that reason for me, I have deep thanks to you, Vietnam veterans, because you made my generation of veterans feel very welcomed for what we do.”

The veterans being honored in attendance received a lapel pin issued by the U.S. government. The pin had an eagle that “represents courage, honor, and dedicated service, to our nation”. The eagle is flying on a blue field that is the “same blue as our American flag, signifying vigilance, perseverance and justice,” said DeSouza. Around that blue field is a laurel wreath that “traditionally represents victory, integrity and strength.” There are also six stars surrounding the eagle, each star representing the allies that fought with the U.S. in Vietnam: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand and South Korea.

A special salute: Last Thursday, Pat Toomey and Martina White honored Vietnam War-era veterans on the first anniversary of National Vietnam Veterans Day. JOHN COLE/TIMES PHOTO

“This pin is a special reminder of how grateful we are for all of the sacrifices that you have made in defense of our nation,” said White.

DeSouza describing the medal in detail, stating the most important part of the medal was the back. He said the part that is closest to the heart “has a very simple message, a grateful nation thanks and honors you.”

Toomey dedicated his time before administering the pins talking about the importance of this holiday and the work that still needs to be done for the veterans community.

The night before the event, Trump announced that David Shulkin would no longer be the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Shulkin, appointed by President Obama in 2015, was re-nominated by Trump and unanimously was approved by the Senate. Toomey spent a great deal of time talking about his view of veterans hospitals and how it’s one of his main focuses.

“So I start from a simple premise, and that is that veterans should be first in line for the best quality healthcare in the world,” Toomey said as those in attendance applauded. “That’s what we owe our veterans.”

Toomey stated that veterans hospitals should be the best in the nation, but believes the U.S. has fallen short as of late in taking care of the veterans.

“We’ve fallen short of that, frankly, in recent years,” said Toomey. “The VA hasn’t always lived up to what it should have lived up to.”

Toomey does believe progress has been made in the past couple of years, however.

“I think we have made some progress, some improvements, of waiting lines for disability claims have diminished,” Toomey said. “I think the quality of care has improved. There’s more accountability at the VA, but there’s no question there’s more work to be done and I want you to know I intend to continue to stay at that.”

The Philadelphia Veterans Affairs hospital, 3900 Woodland Ave., is named after Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz, a Medal of Honor winner who served in the Vietnam War. Toomey said any Vietnam-era veterans who have not received a pin should reach out to his office. ••

John Cole can be reached at JCole@bsmphilly.com