s a young soldier, Mick Kicklighter served two tours of duty in Vietnam, including one stint with the famed 101st Airborne Division.
Now, as the director of the Department of Defense’s program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, Kicklighter is on a mission to see the veterans of that war get the welcome home so few received a generation ago.
"When our heroes did return home, most often they faced a shameful reception when they should have been honored for their service, valor and sacrifice," Kicklighter said at Sunday’s Veterans Day observance at Veterans Park. "Today this nation has a chance to thank and honor those veterans and their families and finally give them the recognition they deserved and earned 50 years ago."
Kicklighter, who retired as a lieutenant general and whose wife Elizabeth hails from Effingham County, announced that Veterans Park is the first of its kind to be a commemorative partner in the 50th anniversary events and it is the first location in Georgia to be made a commemorative partner.
The Vietnam War lasted more than a decade, with the U.S.’ involvement ending with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. More than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 were killed there.
"Fought in steaming jungles, this was a very tough war," Kicklighter said. "But they did all they were asked to do. They served when duty called. They asked for no reward, except a nation’s thanks, which they did not get."
By being a partner in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War, Effingham County is doing its part to pay tribute to those who fought there, Kicklighter told an overflow crowd.
"Finally, they are being remembered," he said. "With your support, we have a chance to turn back the pages of history and correct an injustice and a wrong that was done 50 years ago.
"They will know that a grateful nation does remember them and thanks them."
Kicklighter also evoked the words of the late Gen. Frederick Weyand, who had fought in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II under Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, served with the 3rd Infantry Division in the Korean War and led the 25th Infantry Division and the II Field Force in Vietnam.
"What particularly haunts me," Kickligher recalled of what Weyand said, "what I think is one of the saddest legacies of the Vietnam War, is the cruel misperception that the American fighting men did not measure up to their predecessors in World War II and Korea. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Several families of Effingham servicemen killed in action received Gold Star certificates, signifying the loss of a loved one in combat.
"If anyone knows the price of freedom, it’s a family who lost a loved one in a war," said Kicklighter.
Kicklighter, a Tattnall County native, said America’s greatest heroes "are those who rest under headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, or here in Effingham County or cemeteries all across this nation and around the world. On battlefields far from home, these brave men and women gave all their tomorrows for our freedom.
"When you’re 18 or 19 years old and you give all your tomorrows," he added, "that’s a very high price to pay, so we can enjoy the blessings of freedom in the greatest nation on earth."
America’s World War II veterans, out of more than 16 million men and women in uniform from 1941-45, now number less than 2 million, Kicklighter noted.
"But this generation, the World War II generation, had a rendezvous with destiny," he said. "They fought the most destructive war in history. We were not prepared for that war, though we should have been. They fought against great odds and they not only saved the nation but they saved the world.
"They walk among us today as giants."
Sunday’s event also marked the 10th anniversary for the Veterans Park. State Rep.-elect Bill Hitchens, a former Marine and Vietnam vet, said he marveled at the scope and size of the park as it was under construction. He visits often, usually accompanied by some of his 10 grandchildren, he added.
"They are impressed to see my name under Vietnam and their Uncle Sam’s under the Gulf War," he said.
Hitchens had his 13-year-old grandson in tow one day for his first visit, and his grandson began to peruse the names on the wall. Hitchens pointed out his grandson was "astounded to see the Dashers from Effingham County had served in all those wars" and one, Solomon Dasher, had been killed in the Civil War.
"It is a vivid reminder of what our county thinks of its veterans," Hitchens said of the names of Effingham County veterans on the Veterans Park wall. "It’s also about the honor and the legacy of those who bore the fight, often at great personal sacrifice."
Those names also will be there for years and generations to come, Hitchens said, as others visit the park.
"They will swell with pride to see that their family members’ names grace these walls and they realize they were protectors of our country, our freedoms and our way of life," he said.
Kicklighter also paid tribute to the American servicemen and women who have been called to duty since 9/11 and have fought in the searing heat of Iraq and the bitter cold of the Afghanistan mountains.
"Today, our men and women are fighting a dangerous war against terrorism. The performance of duty and devotion of this generation, fighting this war, has been nothing less than magnificent," he said. "They are the best trained, best equipped, the most prepared and most professional that I have ever known in my career. You can’t say enough about their performance on a very tough battlefield. The stakes are very high in this war; the environment is tough and dangerous."
The effort to honor Vietnam veterans, Kicklighter said, will be focused on hometowns.
"We want to go to where the veterans live and thank them in their own communities," he said. "Even though the main focus will be on our Vietnam veterans and families, we will remember to thank all of our veterans and their families, especially those on the battlefield today."
Kicklighter extolled Veterans Park for its efforts to recognize and honor veterans throughout the U.S.’s history.
"It is said that any nation that forgets its veterans soon ceases to be a great nation," he said. "This park, your presence, says to our veterans that you will never be forgotten."