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Annual East Texas Salute honors veterans of Vietnam War

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The city of Bullard was filled with patriotic pride and American freedom, as members of the East Texas community paid tribute to true American heroes at the 2018 East Texas Salute event, held Saturday, May 12, on the grounds of the Brook Hill Upper School and the American Freedom Museum.

The event this year, which drew an estimated attendance of 6,500-7,000, was to celebrate and honor veterans of the Vietnam War, a group of American heroes that were not given the honor they deserved when they returned from the battlefield.

“It’s very gratifying to see all of these veterans come out to an event like this,” said Steve Dement, founder of The Brook Hill School and the American Freedom Museum. “These veterans we’ve honored all fought in the Vietnam War and did not receive their ‘welcome home’ back in the 1970s, so we were very excited to have provided that experience for them.”

According to American Freedom Museum director Jan Hommel, almost 10 percent of a generation fought in the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955-1975, with over 58,000 American soldiers paying the ultimate sacrifice.

“This year’s event is as an expression of heartfelt gratitude to our aging veterans, to the men and women who fought in Vietnam,” said Hommel. “Vietnam veterans represented 9.7 percent of their generation, with 2,709,918 Americans serving in uniform in Vietnam. The East Texas Salute provides the opportunity for the citizens and students of East Texas to show their appreciation for the sacrifices of our military men and women, to acknowledge their courage, and to show them the honor and support they have earned.”

The reception received by veterans at the 2018 East Texas Salute event was vastly different from the scene when they returned home nearly 43 years ago, with handshakes, hugs, and camaraderie between citizens and soldiers alike.

“Few soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War were greeted at airports and train stations with flowers and messages of “thank you” like our military men and women returning home today are welcomed,” said Hommel. “In fact, some were spat on. We wanted to share this day with this special group of veterans and their families, and let them know that their service for our country is appreciated and that many people here in East Texas are proud of them and want to shake their hands and thank them for their service.”

With clear blue skies and warm temperatures, East Texans were on hand to pay tribute to the veterans at the event, which began with a 300-vehicle parade ride from Tyler to Bullard on Farm-to-Market 2493 with several members of the Patriot Guard Riders and Christian Motorcycle Association, as well as Vietnam War veterans riding in a number of Vietnam-era military vehicles, with an iconic Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter flying overhead.

After the parade, attendees gathered for the veteran’s ceremony in the Brook Hill Upper School courtyard, where a large 76X50-foot American flag was unfurled and the Brook Hill Cannon Guard fired the school’s recognizable cannon.

During the ceremony, Don Allen, a retired Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel and owner of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Traveling Vietnam Wall, served as the keynote speaker.

“It was great to be a part of this year’s event especially,” said Allen. “I was able to be out here amongst all my brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam. We had a wonderful song we had written for them and performed simply telling them ‘Welcome Home.’ We were able to bring back some memories with the military vehicles on sight, as well as the classic car show. This was a great event and a great effort to give the generation of Vietnam war veterans something they didn’t get back then.”

Allen addressed his fellow Vietnam War veterans in his keynote speech, encouraging those who fought to remember the good memories of the war, including the members of their unit whom they served next to on the battlefield.

“What can be said about Vietnam?” asked Allen. “Think about the guys in your unit. Think about the crazy stunts you pulled. It’s all been said and done. It’s been 43 years this month. Let’s smile and remember our friends, even those who are on the wall; you loved them and hated them, but they were your brothers and sisters. The war affected people in different ways, but we all learned that no one hates war more than the people who had to endure it. When it was bad, it was really bad, but when it was good, it was one hell of a ride. Welcome home, brothers.”

After his speech, Allen shook hands, greeted, and presented commemorative Vietnam War coins to veterans in attendance.

Both veterans and citizens were served a complimentary lunch after the ceremony, which including food donated by local businesses such as Chick-Fil-A, Diary Queen, McAlister’s Deli, Brookshire’s Grocery Company, Dr Pepper, and Coca-Cola.

Attendees both young and old were able to see history close up thanks to the large number of Vietnam-era military vehicles and weapons brought in by event coordinator Mike Balfay, including, among others, a 105mm M101A1 howitzer, scout tank, and Bell 47 helicopter, as well as a number of local emergency response vehicles, including fire trucks and medical helicopters.

Also included in the event was free admission to one of the treasures in the Bullard community, the American Freedom Museum, where attendees were able to embark on a self-guided tour throughout the museum’s two galleries: the Hall of Presidents, which includes a signed document by every president, from George Washington to Donald Trump; and the Hall of Freedom, a 15-gallery hall chronicling the major conflicts the US military has been involved in, defined with artifacts, maps, photos, and life-size vignettes.

“One of the purposes of the museum is to teach the current generation, as well as future generations, about our rich history,” said Dement. “Nearly everyone that attends the East Texas Salute events takes advantage of the free admission to the museum. The museum is dedicated to patriotism, our presidents, and those who have contributed significantly to our country. Having such a great facility on our campus really labels us as a patriotic school.”

Event attendees also enjoyed looking back at yesteryear through the Texas Veterans Classic Car Show, featuring over 180 pre-1973 cars and trucks, as well as almost 50 military vehicles.

Bayfay, who was over the car show event, announced a number of awards, including Best Engine (Vance Cline – 1941 Willys Coupe); Best Paint (David Magourik – 1962 Chevy Truck); Best Truck (Lawrence Harper – 1957 Chevy Truck); Best Car (Beverly Livingston – 1956 Chevy Nomad); Best in Show (Mike Danielson – 1955 Chevy Convertible); Best Military Small (Gerry Gardener – M38 Jeep); Best Military Large (Gerry Gardener – M936 Communications Truck); and Best Specialty Vehicle (Gary Dillingham – M2A half track).

According to event organizers, preparations are already underway for the 2019 East Texas Salute event, which will welcome and celebrate veterans who have fought in Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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