SIDNEY — Eleven years after the traveling Vietnam Wall and Field of Crosses first came to Sidney, Army Veteran Jon Baker stood in front of a crowd at Custenborder Field to address the heroes of the Vietnam war.
“I will start with the very same words I used 11 years ago — that I am a two purple heart recipient as a combat Veteran of Vietnam, but I’m not a hero. The heroes are etched on that wall back there,” Baker said.
Baker went on to highlight that while most of the men and women who are immortalized on the Vietnam Wall were 20 years old when they died to the war, the average age of fallen soldiers in Vietnam was 23 years old. He emphasized that their lives made a difference and would continue to do so, so long as they are not forgotten, and that the United States is blessed with the best service men and women in the world — regardless of whether they were drafted into Vietnam or volunteered to serve today.
“Without our veterans, the United States would not exist. The names on this wall — the names in the cemeteries in foreign countries, the names in more than 600 acres on the markers in Arlington Cemetery, the names on the dog tags out in this field — are why we are free,” Baker said.
Vietnam was a war that profoundly changed many veterans lives by what they saw and heard overseas, but also by what they were met with from the American public when they returned home. Media perception at the time painted Vietnam veterans as “baby killers” and would refer to U.S. citizens commiting violent acts as “crazed Vietnam veterans,” according to Baker, which created a contentious environment and divided nation for soliders returning to American soil. Frustrations, at the time, were taken out on soldiers — Baker recalled being told by his superior to get rid of his uniform as soon as he got back to the county.
“Those of us that had no other choice, we flew home with our heads down. That uniform was put in the closet, in a spare bedroom, in a box in the attic, or thrown away at that time,” Baker said.
Fifteen years after he was out of the service, Baker bought a T-shirt that said Army, much to the surprise of friends who weren’t aware of his service in the military. It was the first time he had ever shown pride in his service — something he and many Vietnam veterans felt they were not allowed to do in the years following the war. Things changed, Baker said, thanks to Vietnam veterans who would go to airports to welcome Desert Storm and Desert Shield soldiers home — all to ensure that those soliders would never have to experience what the Vietnam veterans had gone through.
“Veterans groups around the country started showing up at airports and other places. Uniformed soldiers were returning, waving flags and saying thank-you and shaking their hands, and saying, ‘welcome home’,” Baker said.
On two separate occasions in Baker’s working life, he tried to visit the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., only to turn and walk the opposite direction when he got in sight of it, overcome with emotion. Today, he considers the Wall to be healing — when he got involved with bringing the traveling Wall to Sidney 11 years ago, he said he got the courage to take an honor trip to D.C. to see visit the wall with other veterans. He holds Shelby County in high esteem for organizing trips to D.C. for Veterans, free of charge, so they can heal.
“No greater respect can be found for the veteran than in this county,” Baker said. “There’s not a Vietnam veteran who wanted to go, that didn’t get a trip from this county at no cost to that veteran, thanks to the people in this community and the businesses in this community.”
Baker closed with a quote from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
“‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It’s not passed down through the bloodline. It must be fought for and protected’. Those words are no more true then, when he said them, than they are today, right here within our borders. Once freedom is lost, it is gone forever,” Baker said.
Prior to Baker’s speech, Shelby County Commissioner Tony Bornhorst and Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst addressed the crowd, thanking veterans for their service and reflecting on the importance of honoring Vietnam veterans.
Barhorst repeated the story he shared at the opening ceremonies about how, six years ago when the Wall was last in Sidney, he found a man kneeling and sobbing with his hand on the name of a friend and fellow soldier who had lost his life in Vietnam. He had traveled to Sidney by motorcycle from Minnesota when he found out the traveling Wall would be there. He was sick with cancer and was told by doctors he only had six weeks to live, and while he knew he would never make it to Washington, D.C. to see the wall, he was confident he could make it to Sidney.
“It was at that point, I made the decision that, one way or another, we had to bring the wall back as part of the Bicentennial celebration,” Barhorst said. “City council appropriated the money to do so in 2018 to ensure we would have the wall in Sidney during a specific week in 2020 — and then our plans changed due to the pandemic. But it’s here now, and for that I am grateful.”
Bornhorst opened his remarks by telling the crowd about a wedding he had attended the evening prior for his niece, and how during the reception, he and his wife joined several couples for an anniversary dance. The longer the dance went on, more couples got eliminated based on how long they had been married. It made Bornhorst reflect on how, all those names on the Wall and in the Field of Crosses didn’t get the opportunity to have a dance or celebrate an anniversary.
“It’s due to their sacrifice that we’re all able to be here this afternoon, freely, to remember, to pay our respects, to say thank you,” Bornhorst said. “Such an awesome task that those folks took on so that we always remember that freedom isn’t free — there’s a heavy price. I wish to thank each and every one of our veterans for your service, for your service to your country, but also your service to your fellow man — thank you.”
Historical Society Executive Director Tilda Phlipot delivered the closing remarks following Baker’s speech. Twelve years ago, Phlipot started working with a group of men on building exhibits and painting murals for the first Vietnam Wall visit. Since that time, the Vietnam Wall visits have included a car show, a field of flags, and this time around, a field of crosses honoring the soldiers who had given their lives since Vietnam.
Phlipot said that much of the work that was done and the Veterans who volunteered did so thanks to the late Jim Hall, who had a bench dedicated in his memory at Tawawa Park last
Saturday, Sept. 18. When Hall passed away in the midst of planning for the 2021 Vietnam Wall, Cecil Steele stepped up to help Phlipot keep things on track and keep the rest of the men in check.
“He watched over them, and he put those crosses together, and he called them all, and he told them what day they were going to be there and how many hours they were going to work and how they were going to finish this project,” Phlipot said.
Steele, according to Phlipot, jumped the fence on Saturday prior to the Wall arriving because he couldn’t wait for a key. On Sunday, he helped the kids put the Field of Crosses together. On Monday at lunchtime, someone stopped Steele and told him to go home because of how weak he was, barely able to walk on his own. He argued and fought, saying that if he went home, no one would help Phlipot. Eventually, Steele went home, and passed away on Friday, Sept. 17.
“On Friday, we cried a lot. This group has been through heart attacks, Parkinsons, COVID, you name it, and death. It has been a long 12 years to get here,” Phlipot said. “This field of flags and crosses and the wall, even when it comes to you, is about laying down our lives for you. Coming home — that’s what this is all about. I’m glad you came home with us.”
The ceremony concluded with Bill Fuller playing Taps on bagpipes, and the memorial flame being extinguished by the family of Charles Huston, a soldier from Houston who is still missing in action.