Honoring Vietnam veterans in McHenry County: ‘First time I feel like I was really welcomed home’

Organizations said they address veterans’ invisible wounds, too

McHenry County Board member Carl Kamienski reads the names of McHenry County veterans who died in the Vietnam War are read during the “Voices from Vietnam,” program on Friday, March 29, 2024, at the McHenry County Government Administration Building in Woodstock. The program was the first time that McHenry County honored Vietnam veterans on Vietnam War Veterans Day. The day, that was created by federal law enacted in 2017, honors the more than 2.7 million American men and women who served in Vietnam.

A man stood off to the side, quietly weeping at the McHenry County Government Center on Friday morning during the county’s first-ever Vietnam veteran memorial service.

Lou Ness, commander of the Woodstock American Legion Post 421, went over to talk to the man and comfort him.

“He says to me, ‘This is the first time I feel like I was really welcomed home,’” Ness said.

That veteran wasn’t the only one Ness saw shed a tear at the ceremony.

“I think that it has taken us a long time to figure out how we can create space for them to come together as a larger community [of Vietnam veterans],” Ness said.

[Organizations like the Legion and the VFW] can supply listening ... to provide veterans the help they need for these invisible wounds.”

—  John Widmayer, Woodstock VFW Post 5040

March 29, 1973, is recognized as the day the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam.

In 2017, the day officially was declared by President Donald Trump as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Ness, who became the American Legion’s commander in July and who is a Vietnam-era veteran herself, said she recently learned of the day’s designation and decided that there should be a ceremony at the seat of McHenry County government, in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The names of 35 service members from the county who died in the war are inscribed there.

Ness also is a McHenry County Board member, representing the 7th District. She said wore her “chaplain” jacket to the service, from her past work as a police and fire department chaplain, “to have this word in the space,” and perhaps allow some of those veterans the freedom to talk to her about their service.

About 80 people attended the ceremony. Estimates are that 300 or so Vietnam-area veterans live in the county now, Ness said.

In preparation for the memorial event, she researched those honored on the memorial – their names, the day they died and their branch of service. Of those names, 26 were in the Army, five were Marines, three were in the Air Force and one was in the Navy. They ranged in age from 19 to 37, and 12 of them were 21 when they were killed.

For those who survived the tours of duty, many came home to be shunned, Ness said. Military organizations “will never let this happen to our military again,” she added.

Before the 21-gun salute and the playing of taps, John Widmayer of the Woodstock Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5040 noted that many veterans of the war came back with invisible wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and moral injuries.

Organizations such as the Legion and the VFW “can supply listening ... to provide veterans the help they need for these invisible wounds,” Widmayer said.

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