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50 years after war, local Vietnam veterans officially recognized

Bradley Mayes (left), director of the VA Regional Benefits Office, shook hands with Marty Grady, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.
Bradley Mayes (left), director of the VA Regional Benefits Office, shook hands with Marty Grady, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

When John Wilkinson came home from serving in the Vietnam War in 1966, he was called names and had Coke cans thrown at him, he sadly recalled.

On Monday, however, Wilkinson was one of about 60 Boston-based veterans recognized for serving in the Vietnam War. The event was part of the national Vietnam War Commemoration, which was launched in 2012 and lasts until 2025.

“It’s better late than never,” Wilkinson said.

Army veteran Ray Miniganus (left) and Air Force veteran Frank Deveau bowed their heads during the ceremony.
Army veteran Ray Miniganus (left) and Air Force veteran Frank Deveau bowed their heads during the ceremony.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

During a ceremony at the VA Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, the Vietnam veterans were thanked for serving their country, and were presented with commemorative pins marking the anniversary.

“This is an opportunity for us to stop for a moment and acknowledge the sacrifice and the things that they did for this country,” VA Regional Benefits Office director Bradley Mayes said. “They really paved the way for generations of veterans that came after them.”

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Though most of this year’s official commemorations for the war will take place around the country Tuesday, many VA medical centers and regional offices are holding events throughout the week, organizers said.

Nine million Americans, approximately 7 million living today, served during the war, which lasted from Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, officials said.

Wilkinson, who served in the Navy, said that during the 1960s, the benefits for veterans were not as good as today. He remembers being told that post-traumatic stress disorder did not exist.

“You go there, you serve your country, you get out,” he said of the general attitude toward soldiers.

Melvin Donnell, who served in the Army in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966, said honoring Vietnam veterans has been “a long time coming.”

Monday’s recognition was especially important because “when the Vietnam veterans came home, they didn’t get the welcome like we do today,” VA Boston Healthcare system director Vincent Ng said.

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“It was a controversial time,” he said. “Today’s ceremony really makes all of us feel better, and feel good that they are not lost; that we remember them, and officially welcome them home.”

The pins given out were emblazoned with an eagle, laurel wreath, and stars and stripes. The symbols were in a blue circle that represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

He said the veterans who come to the medical center are a supportive and tightknit group, and it showed during the ceremony. They cheered on their fellow service members as they received pins, many already wearing shirts and hats recognizing their service.

Vietnam War veteran Darrel Hopkins saluted during the ceremony.
Vietnam War veteran Darrel Hopkins saluted during the ceremony.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

Mayes said he felt emotional presenting the pins.

“Your collective service and individual sacrifices have safeguarded the cherished concepts embodied in our Constitution,” he said in a speech to the veterans. “Our country and our communities in this great Commonwealth owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Joyce McNeil attended to accept a pin on behalf of her husband, Prince, who served in the Army in the early 1970s. He is currently at the VA Medical Center in Brockton, she said.

“He served his country very well and he should be recognized,” McNeil said. “When he came back, they weren’t recognized And this is wonderful.”

Diane Williams, now 63, served in the Air Force from 1972 to 1980. She said she always enjoys conversing with the other Vietnam veterans and bonding with them, since they all had a similar experience coming home from the war 50 years ago.

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“When I got back out of the military, it seemed like I didn’t have a home anymore,” she said. “Now that we are being recognized and some of our issues being taken care of. . . . I can see we’re coming a long way, and the acceptance and the healing process is beginning.”

Members of the color guard carried flags during the ceremony.
Members of the color guard carried flags during the ceremony.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
Francis Fraine, an Army veteran, removed his hat during the ceremony.
Francis Fraine, an Army veteran, removed his hat during the ceremony.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto.