Every day good day to thank a veteran
On Sunday night, John J. Winters will attend the Steelers-Patriots game at Heinz Field as a special guest and a representative of Vietnam veterans.
The ceremony will honor all vets from all branches, from all conflicts. For Winters, it is an honor. He can’t believe he was chosen and tugs at his labels, pretending it’s the service jacket he’s going to wear. He touches his baseball cap gently as though it’s his hat that bears his battalion’s logo.
“Look out for me,” he says.
Times have changed, though. People weren’t always so glad to see a Vietnam veteran.
Winters, a Marine, served from January to November of 1968. He was part of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. Its job was to seek out the enemy in the Vietnam countryside. He thinks his experience might have been a lot like how it is for soldiers in Afghanistan and in Iraq because it wasn’t always clear who the enemy was.
“At least the North Vietnamese Army wore uniforms. The Viet Cong was more chaotic and they controlled the countryside,” Winters remembers. “You don’t know who’s who.”
His unit saw a 50 percent casualty rate. Fifty percent. He’s still amazed that many made it out.
“I was, like, 20,” he said. “I think of it now and I think, ‘Man, I must have been nuts!’ ”
He wasn’t physically injured, but pointing to his head, says, “All of us have been wounded here.”
Despite his close calls and sacrifices, he still couldn’t escape the fact that many Americans at home opposed the war.
“The cold reception was …,” Winters said, trailing off. “Not a lot of people coming up to us and saying ‘Thank you.’ ” He says that TV coverage of the war shaded the way people felt about the conflict, and those who served in it.
He and other Vietnam vets also got the cold shoulder from others like them. “The World War II guys, they shunned us,” he said, because their war was considered a more worthy cause. “The World War II veterans I got along with the best had sons who fought in Vietnam.”
Winters doesn’t foresee the same problems for those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, part of another unpopular conflict. “In this country, there’s a swell of pride for these guys — they’re volunteers,” he said. He fears, though, that if funding is really cut, the resolution of the war could resemble that of Vietnam, where he felt the Vietnamese were close to surrendering, but America decreased its troop support.
Meanwhile, Winters, now in his 60s, came back from Vietnam to his wife and two children and settled into a career with the post office. He retired four years ago, and now spends most of his time running the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3945 on Morningside Avenue in the city’s Morningside neighborhood. He still shows support for all soldiers, recently attending a funeral for an Altoona man who died in Afghanistan and who was a member of his 3rd Recon unit. He thinks that most Americans do appreciate the sacrifice of our nation’s soldiers and show their proper respect on days like today — Veterans Day. For those who served, though, the tribute to their fellow soldiers never ends.
“Every day is Memorial Day to veterans,” Winters said.