GVSU joins forces with community for belated thank-you to Vietnam veterans

Lauren Fitch

People from across West Michigan will gather at Fifth Third Ballpark on July 3 to attempt to remedy the wrongs committed more than 35 years ago against the soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.

The event, Landing Zone Michigan, will be an important step in the healing process of one veteran, Ron Oakes, who has helped organize the project as a member of VFW post No. 702.

In 2005, Oakes returned from serving 11 months in Iraq as part of the Michigan National Guard. He and 56 other soldiers were bused to Detroit at the end of their service.

Oakes said the first thing greeting them as they crossed the state line into Michigan was a state trooper pulled into the median with the car’s sirens on as the officer stood by and saluted. Similar greetings met the group every 20 miles or so, and Oakes said the whole trip brought tears to his eyes.

The reason this return had such an emotional effect on Oakes was because he had to reconcile it with the memories of a much colder reception when he returned from the Vietnam War 36 years earlier.

Oakes was 18 when he enlisted as a radio field operator for the Marines during the Vietnam War. He returned in 1969 at the age of 20, though that time there were no sirens to mark the occasion and no one saluted the soldiers for their sacrifice and service.

In 1969, the bus driver told the soldiers to change into civilian clothes as soon as they could so as not to draw attention to the fact they had been in the military.

“A lot of it went over my head,” Oakes said. “I was just so glad to be back home and out of combat.”

Still it was not life as usual as Oakes struggled to readjust to civilian life, yet was forced to deal with the experiences alone for fear of the negative reactions people had to the military at that time.

One example of rejection Oakes shared was when he went to ask out an old girlfriend after returning from the war. Though the two had dated for a while before he enlisted, this time the girl’s father told Oakes to stay away because he did not want his daughter around a Marine.

Emotions ran high during his reminiscence as Oakes teared up and pulled close his wife, Kathie, who will speak at the July 3 event. He cited these and many other examples of the poor reception Vietnam veterans have dealt with as reasons why the LZ Michigan event is so important.

“America should have been proud of (the Vietnam veterans) from the start because they are a remarkable group of men and women,” Oakes said. “To this day, most people don’t understand the true facts of the war and the credit due to the veterans.”

Sponsored by WGVU, Grand Valley State University and Fifth Third Ballpark, LZ Michigan will begin at 3 p.m. on July 3 with a motorcycle rally. The main program will start with different speakers, recognition and music before the night ends with fireworks. The goal of the event is to finally recognize all the Vietnam veterans in the area and thank them for their service and sacrifice so many years ago.

In preparation for the event, many speakers shared the personal significance of the project.

Connie Dang, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at GVSU, shared a story of how the soldiers in Vietnam saved her family. Dang was a young girl during the war who took cover with her family in Saigon after North Vietnam forces started bombing the city. She credited the soldiers for sacrificing to keep her family safe and secure.

Also instrumental in organizing the event is the GVSU Veterans History project. The Veterans History project, started in 2001 to work with the Library of Congress, is an oral history with the goal of sharing the stories of veterans from World War II on.

James Smither, director of the Veterans History Project, said he has been recruiting many of the thousand of veterans now living in the West Michigan area to come forward and share their experiences.

“This is not a group who’s come forward in large numbers to their stories before,” Smithers said.

He said GVSU is a good partner for the LZ Michigan event because the university has the manpower, resources and networking to reach a lot of veterans, and it supports the university’s goal of giving back to the community.

“We can take our skills and resources and do something for people who most certainly deserve it,” Smithers said. “Just by showing up (to the event), you say, a little belatedly, that what (the veterans) did does matter.”

Tickets for LZ Michigan are $10 for general admission and veterans get in free. For more information on the complete schedule of events and to order tickets, visit www.lzmichigan.org.

[email protected]