A Hero’s Welcome, Long Overdue

5/3 Ballpark Hosts LZ Michigan, a welcome home for Vietnam vets

By Matt Marn 

A parade of motorcycle riders cruised into 5/3 Ballpark on a hot and sunny July 3 to kick off LZ Michigan, a reunion and welcome home for Vietnam veterans. LZ Michigan was also a chance for the community to show their gratitude for all the veterans went through and sacrificed for their country.

Vietnam War veterans Ken McKay and Rod VanOeveren reunite after serving together decades ago. They saw each other for the first time here in the United States at the Fifth/Third LZ Michigan welcome home event honoring servicemen and women.

LZ, a military slang term for “Landing Zone,” refers to a safe place for helicopters to land. That day, it meant a safe place to return to; a safe place to get the hero’s welcome they earned so long ago.

The Michigan Traveling Memorial wall outside the stadium displayed and paid respects to all those killed and missing in Vietnam from the state of Michigan. Nearby tables, draped in black tablecloths and littered with tissue boxes, offered dozens of binders with names, ranks, pictures and stories of soldiers who paid the ultimate price.

Ken McKay of Grand Rapids came to LZ Michigan with his wife, Joan, to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers in Vietnam. McKay is one such soldier, who spent his 21st birthday calling in F-4 Phantom airstrikes on military targets.

“At the time, we hadn’t heard about all the demonstrations, we were just fighting,” McKay said. “We came back, and were called baby-killers.”

The American people were, at times, unwelcoming upon the return of our soldiers after Vietnam, sometimes downright hostile. But LZ Michigan, McKay said, is a start to the healing process.

“This is the best day that has ever happened to me.”

McKay went through grade school, high school, even Boy Scouts, with his good friend Rod VanOeveren. They enlisted together, went through basic training and boot camp together, and were deployed into separate areas of combat.

Later, when he was in the room calling in airstrikes at 21, McKay heard his name called across the room. He looked over to the man who was calling for him. It was VanOeveren, calling in naval targets himself.

And when VanOeveren found McKay at LZ Michigan, the men shook hands and embraced, friends reunited once more.

Stefanie Leiter brought her father-in-law, Lester Amburgey, a Vietnam veteran, to LZ Michigan to help show her gratitude. Having served January 1968 to October 1970, Amburgey only recently began sharing his experiences after he attended a number of reunions, Leiter said.

“It’s about time this happened,” Amburgey said of LZ Michigan’s welcome home. “I just feel bad about the guys we left behind. It’s kind of bittersweet. I go to reunions every year. We’ve still got our commanding general with us. He’s 83 years old now. But it still doesn’t get any easier. We keep losing guys.”

A Vietnam vet who goes by the name “Big Mike” pointed out the thought, “as a generation leaves us, so do the memories.”

Big Mike said the day was about honoring those who did what they had to do.

“But we don’t want to see it happen again, he said. “Desert Storm vets will have to carry the load. We’re not going to be here much more. Well, should we go get more to carry on? No, we don’t want more. We want to have a day where there’s none of this.”

Next to Big Mike sits a man proudly waving a black POW/MIA flag in the breeze. The man has been carrying this flag with him for miles. In fact, he is running a mile with the flag for all 58, 226 Americans that were killed in Vietnam. “Flag Man,” as he is called by his friends, said he has logged over 54,000 miles so far.

“When it gets tough, I think about the guys who didn’t come home,” he said. “The main point of all of this is to honor our vets, to let them know we love them, and that you are not forgotten.”

This respect for those in uniform is never more real than among fellow soldiers. An example of this was shown for all to see when a man in a POW/MIA T-shirt and a Vietnam veteran cap stopped a young soldier as he passed by, asking him if he was an Iraq War veteran.

The young man, clad in fatigues, black beret and combat boots, said yes and stood in silence as he was presented a medal by his Vietnam brother-in-arms.

“We Vietnam veterans want to present you with this medal to show our gratitude and appreciation for what you have done,” the man said. “From one generation to another, welcome home.”

The LZ Michigan ceremony featured guest speakers, musicians, writers, and clips from two upcoming documentaries on the Vietnam War and what happened when the soldiers returned. 2,654 small American flags stood planted in center field, one representing each soldier from Michigan that has yet to come home. In the closing ceremony, there was a moment of silence for a bugle rendition of TAPS, followed by a fireworks show.

The master of ceremonies of the night, retired U.S. Navy Captain Paul Ryan, ended the evening with a last, thundering round of applause from the audience for all war veterans present in the stands. He reminded everyone that the next day was July 4, when 234 years ago a group of brave men, a group of patriots, stood up for freedom and started more than any could imagine.

“When you came home, you were called anything but patriots,” Ryan said. “Welcome home, patriots! Welcome home.”

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