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Honor Flight of Vietnam vets from Utah to take part in National Archives event

President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at a cabinet meeting, February 7, 1968 (Photo: National Archives, Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum)

The war in Vietnam was one with concentric casualties, leaving more than 58,000 American soldiers dead, and scores more fighting personal battles even decades after they returned.

This week as President Trump visits Vietnam in an effort to strengthen relations between the two countries, in Washington DC, they’ll open up a new exhibit at the National Archives about the Vietnam War.  And a group of veterans from Utah will be there. They’re part of Utah’s Honor Flight program.  Nearly 4 dozen veterans who served during the Vietnam War will be there.  The Utah vets are part of an Honor Flight, a program set up to thank veterans for their service by, in part, flying them back to Washington DC to see the memorials on the mall.

Vets on this flight are people like Ron Biggar of West Jordan, who in 1967 was among dozens of U.S Marines from a Utah Platoon bound for Vietnam. Biggar served with the First Battalion, Third Marine Division. He was wounded two months after arriving.  While he was in the hospital recovering, Biggar said a good friend he went in with was killed.

“He’s buried over in Taylorsville,” Biggar said.  “I go over to his grave site quite often.”

Ron Biggar was among a platoon of Marines from Utah who left for Vietnam at the same time. He said less than half returned.

Biggar has also been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, and looks forward to going there with other Utah vets on Friday to lay a wreath.  Another Utahn, Charlie Zoolakis, has not been to the wall.  He also has friends whose names are on the wall.  The Sandy resident who fought in the Tet offensive, says he feels lucky to be alive.

“I have some friends on that wall,” he said.

Charlie Zoolakis fought in the Tet offensive. (Photo courtesy Charlie Zoolakis)

Later in the day, the group will travel to the National Archives, for the opening of an exhibit, “Remembering Vietnam, Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War.”

National Archives

Utah Honor Flight organizers say it’s the only large group of Vietnam Vets who’ll be there.  The exhibit examines the before, during and after the war, its impacts, politics, and the fallout on the United States, Vietnam and the soldiers who served there.

It includes video displays, artifacts, audio recordings and interviews.  It also documents the politics and protests during that time, protests that caught a lot of returning soldiers off guard.

“I thought we’d be welcomed home and we weren’t,” said Zoolakis.  “It hurt.”

Zoolakis, himself said he believes the war was a mistake, but still the soldiers went.  Biggar said other than his family, his homecoming was met with cold shoulders.

“I kind of resented a lot of people after that,” said Biggar.  “I also thought too that it wasn’t our fault that we were there.  We had to go because I wanted to serve my country and we were sent there.”

Thomas Rose, of Richfield, played basketball for UNLV before he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.  He never returned to school after the war.  In fact, Rose said he struggled to some extent for decades after he came home.

“There’s just a lot of emotions to that still,” he said.  “And I’ve been able to work through that fairly well actually.  And I just actually have a lot of empathy for guys that were there, 19-year-olds.  They go over there and emotionally their lives are changed forever.”

Rose has organized events for veterans in his town, including a memorial following a “Beach Boys” concert, and a run.

“I guess I’ve got two adages that worked well for me,” Rose said.  “And that is ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift‘.  And also the fact that I let go of what no longer serves me.”

Rose, though, admits that he knows of many who still have trouble letting go.  He said appreciation can go a long way.

“Appreciation for a guy that either volunteers or is drafted, of course there’s not a draft now, that goes to serve our country,” he said. “When they come home, welcome them home.”

“I served with honor and I’m sure all of the soldiers that were there served with honor,” said Biggar.  “And even though it was an unfavorable war with the public, we thought we were doing the right thing,” he said.

The Honor Flight departs from Utah Thursday and will return on Saturday, Veteran’s Day.