The Last Word
By Tony Chavonne , November 2021
I woke up early that Sunday morning in 2011 and made my way downtown to see the Rolling Thunder motorcycle club escort The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a 3/5 scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, onto the grounds of the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. The wall was going to be the focal point of the city’s first Heroes Homecoming event, a time to show appreciation to our country’s Vietnam veterans and to gain a better understanding of Fayetteville’s unique ties to that war.
As the memorial wall installers arranged the 70 separate panels with the more than 58,000 names of those killed, I noticed a woman standing to the side all by herself. I approached her, introduced myself and asked if she planned to participate in the upcoming Heroes Homecoming events.
She shared with me that she was born here, a military brat living in a military town. I thought about the thousands of people living here with a similar story. She told me she was in class in the Bowley Elementary School in 1968 when her mother, accompanied by an Army officer, pulled her out of class to tell her that her father had been killed in Vietnam. She talked about how she felt that day and every day since hearing that dreadful news.
She was here on this Sunday morning at this sacred place to see the memorial wall’s Panel 14E erected – the panel with her father’s name etched into the black marble.
In that moment, through the tears that only an innocent child’s memory can bring, Heroes Homecoming took on a new meaning.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of our community’s first Heroes Homecoming event. The community effort, led by the City of Fayetteville, the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and dozens of local volunteers and organizations, was created in 2011 to show all Vietnam veterans that we remembered their courage and sacrifice. Many American soldiers returning from Vietnam never received the homecoming they deserved, and Fayetteville wanted to rectify that.
Over the years, Fayetteville has had arguably a closer bond to the Vietnam War and the political and social unrest of the 1960s than perhaps any city in the country. Fayetteville became a microcosm of the anger and frustration with the war and our government that was being expressed around the country. Sadly, it was a time when our country turned away from its support of our military.
Many current residents of this community were here during that period. Countless more thousands of our residents have been brought up hearing the term “Fayette-nam” but not having the knowledge to discuss or to understand what exactly it means.
Our first Heroes Homecoming event was created to show appreciation to the Vietnam War soldier. But along the way, we found a way to feel better about ourselves as well.
Fayetteville had changed dramatically in the 40 years since the war ended in 1973, and now prided itself on being a military community and a community that exhibits American virtues. The city had even been recognized in 2009 by Time magazine as America’s most military friendly city.
Heroes Homecoming lasted 10 days and included over 50 events focusing on education and information, discussion and dialogue, and ending with a celebration surrounding Veterans Day 2011.
Our guests of honor included Adrian Cronauer, the Vietnam airman DJ, famous for creating the “Good Morning Vietnam” radio program, and actress Connie Stevens, a longtime supporter of Vietnam veterans.
Other highlights included Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s performances of “Miss Saigon,” a Vietnam War Gold Star wives’ luncheon at Fort Bragg, Methodist University’s program honoring Vietnam War nurses, a Montagnard encampment on Hay Street, and the relocation and rededication of the Vietnam War Memorial on Fort Bragg.
Heroes Homecoming concluded with a Welcome Home parade for our country’s Vietnam veterans and a USO variety show featuring Stevens.
Those 10 days not only provided a well-deserved welcome home to our Vietnam veterans, but also helped us to better appreciate the unwavering bond that we in Fayetteville share with each other and with the military and military family members of today.
Every year for the past 10 years, our community has come together around Veterans Day to celebrate our Heroes Homecoming. While each year focused on a different military conflict, the stories we shared reenforced our prayers and commitment that there will never be another time that America fails to appreciate its military heroes and their families.
Every time I can, I visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. But I never look at it the same way again since that early Sunday morning in 2011, when the emotions of living in a military town came front and center in an etched name in the black marble of Panel 14E.