Thank you and welcome home.
Two phrases of just two words, but words with powerful meaning.
Fifty years ago, during the Vietnam War, returning veterans didn’t hear those words.
Opposition to the unpopular war had split the country.
Raymond Milar returned to Hilo after serving in the Army in Vietnam and remembers feeling lost and alone.
“I was always looking for home,” he said. “I couldn’t find home.”
When he went to war, he left home and his memories of playing with pogs, shooting at birds with slingshots and spending time with his older brother, Alberto Milar Jr., and other family.
Alberto Milar was a welder with Hilo Iron Works with a wife and two children.
After Raymond Milar returned from the war, he remembers drinking after work with his brother and his brother’s friends, until Alberto’s National Guard unit was called to duty.
In a private conversation before leaving for Vietnam, Raymond asked his brother if he was afraid.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’m afraid I’ll never come home.’”
Raymond said he was preparing to return for another tour in Vietnam to take his brother’s place, when an officer and a chaplain approached their house.
“That’s the one thing you don’t want to see,” Milar said.
Alberto Milar Jr. was killed on Sept. 7, 1969, in Phuoc Long, Vietnam, four months after their unit left for the war. Raymond said his brother’s commanding officer told him that Alberto, a combat medic, volunteered to go on the mission and even though he was mortally wounded, and under enemy fire, he continued to treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
For his bravery, Alberto Milar Jr. was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third highest military honor for valor in combat.
He was 24.
Milar is one of 51 Big Island and 276 Hawaii residents who never returned home from Vietnam.
As part of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commemoration, Hawaii County, veterans groups and AARP Hawaii organized a Welcome Home Ceremony for Vietnam veterans in Hilo. Other ceremonies were held on Kauai and Maui around Veterans Day earlier this month. November is also Military Family Appreciation Month. Oahu’s ceremony was held in May, during the week of Memorial Day.
Roann Okamura organized the ceremony for Hawaii County. Holding the ceremony was a personal mission for her office because one of her co-workers lost a brother in Vietnam.
“It makes you wonder about all the other stories that are out there,” she said.
Milar said that he was awed when he walked into Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium and saw 800 other Vietnam veterans, family members and supporters.
“There’s a lot of Vietnam veterans after all,” he said. “All these people, maybe they felt the same way (as I did).”
This Thanksgiving, remember the veterans and their families as you gather at your table. Tell them, “thank you and welcome home.” And be thankful that they are home while remembering the sacrifice of those who will never come home.
Barbara Kim Stanton is the state director for AARP Hawaii, an organization dedicated to empowering people to choose how they live as they age.