It was a heartfelt homecoming in so many ways, for so many, at the Edmonds Veterans Plaza Friday night.
For an hour, local veterans — many of them Vietnam vets — remembered those who became prisoners of war or were declared missing in action during our nation’s conflicts. The occasion was national POW/MIA Day, and nearly 100 people gathered for the remembrance held in the new Veterans Plaza space, which officially opened at 5th and Bell on Memorial Day.
The crowd heard first from keynote speaker Joe Crecca, a former Air Force Major and Vietnam veteran who spent more than six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam after being shot down by a surface-to-air missile on Nov. 22, 1966.
A North Bend resident, Crecca described being captured, beaten and interrogated, followed by eight months in solitary confinement. “During that time I tried to keep my mind busy,” he said. “The first thing I did was remember all the presidents of the United States in chronological order, then the states of the union in alphabetical order and all the capitols.” After that, he said, he “started working on math and physics problems and remembering classical music themes.”
Eventually, the Vietnamese put all the prisoners of war together in one large prison, with 50 to a room, which made the POW experience more bearable, Crecca said. “We had classes. I taught math and physics and automotive theory and practice and also learned a little bit of Russian. We used the floor as a blackboard with a giant piece of roof tile that had volunteered to become a piece of chalk.”
In December 1972, in an effort to bring the Vietnamese back to the negotiating table, the U.S. launched “an all-out aerial bombardment” with B-52s. A peace accord was reached in January 1973 and a month later the POWs were released. “When I boarded the C-141 and saw the American flag on the vertical stabilizer it was quite a site,” he said. “But I didn’t allow myself to feel like I was finally free and safe until I thought we were at least 25 nautical miles from the coast where the surface-to-air missiles couldn’t get us.”
Crecca closed his talk with this quote from President Calvin Coolidge:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Attendees also saw the unveiling of a special portrait completed by Edmonds artist Michael Reagan, himself a Vietnam veteran, who founded the Fallen Heroes Foundation. Reagan, who draws portraits of fallen soldiers, presented a portrait of a former missing in action soldier from Vietnam — James Moreland — to his sister Linda Moreland Brown, who lives in Yelm.
“I love all veterans,” Reagan said. “They deserve all the love we can give them — the ones that are still here and the ones that aren’t. And everybody who’s ever heard me talk knows my mantra: We’re never going to forget.”
Sitting next to Linda Brown was a woman with a special connection to Moreland — Kathy Strong. The Walnut Creek, Calif. woman had never met the missing soldier. But when she was 12 years old, she received a stainless steel bracelet — popular at the time — that was engraved with his name and the date that he went missing in action: 2-7-68. She wore the bracelet for 38 years, eventually connecting online with Moreland’s sister. After Moreland’s remains were finally recovered from Vietnam in 2011, Strong attended his funeral, leaving the bracelet pinned to the uniformed remains in his casket.
How did Strong end up in Edmonds? “Once I found out six years ago that James wasn’t coming home alive, I realized I wanted to do something further to celebrate his life and never be forgotten,” she said. Strong said she is now “on a mission” to install an engraved memorial paving stone in Moreland’s name — at her own expense — at veterans memorials in all 50 states. Washington state is her 11th — and she has 39 to go.
She ended up placing the paving stone at the Edmonds Veterans Plaza because a long-time family friend — Susie Schaefer, who coordinates the Edmonds Wildlife Demonstration Garden — lives in Edmonds and suggested it to Strong.
The evening’s final speaker was Dan Doyle, a VFW Post 8870 member who served as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam. He reflected on the common experience that many Vietnam veterans faced when they returned.
“Our homecoming was often met with open hostility towards us individually and personally,” Doyle said. “The end result was that many of us Vietnam veterans never felt welcomed home. We went into our shells, went about our lives, keeping our experiences to ourselves. But there remains incalculable emptiness in us, an emptiness we began to fill for each other in the veteran community because nobody else had.
“We did not receive a welcome home from our country, so we started saying it to each other. It is our recognition that we will always be the misunderstood warriors of an unpopular war but we also know what we did and for each other, over there in the Nam. And we will always have that between us.
“We know the nobility of our care for one another. We know the courage and determination in each other’s hearts and souls and bodies in the middle of firefights and battlefields.
“This is why when we meet another Vietnam veteran for the first time, we say ‘Welcome home, brother,'” Doyle continued. “What we went through in the Nam has made us a band of brothers like no other and it with a sense of brotherhood that I saw to all who are here today — especially my brother and sister Vietnam veterans, to all POW veterans, to all Gold Star families, to those who have been able to welcome their missing in action home, I say to you: Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home.”
At the end of Doyle’s speech, a group of Gold Star Mothers — those who have lost sons or daughters during service for the U.S. Armed Forces — began distributing commemorative medals to all Vietnam veterans present.
Veterans, some close to tears, proudly lined up to receive their medals and a hug or handshake, along with a sincere “Welcome home.”
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel