The Memorial Day Eve candlelight ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific served as a “continuous welcome home to our Vietnam veterans.”
Many of the attendees, who were either Vietnam War veterans or knew veterans, hoped for better treatment of deployed soldiers returning home.
“They came home to a society that practically disinherited them,” Gene Castagnetti, former director of the cemetery and one of the event’s masters of ceremony, said about Vietnam War veterans during the ceremony.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Carswell Ross, the event coordinator and member of the Oahu Veterans Council, said a better outlook of military veterans can help them reintegrate back into society.
“Unfortunately, there will always be veterans returning home,” he said. “Please honor them for doing what our country has asked us to do, so when they return home they’ll feel wanted. They’ll feel a little more understood.”
He said that veterans of the Vietnam War were not welcomed after returning from war, making what was already a difficult reintegration process even more so.
The annual ceremony, which began in 1981, started at 5 p.m. at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which is at Punchbowl Crater, and featured performances by the U.S. Marine Forces Pacific Band and the Vietnam TV Ohana Singers, an aircraft demonstration and speakers who served in the Vietnam War.
The cemetery had been prepared for Memorial Day, with thousands of small American flags planted next to the graves at the cemetery and dozens of larger flags flying above.
Rona Adams, who served as an Army nurse during the war, has attended the ceremony since the early 2000s.
When asked why she attends every year, she said, “Because I’m a Vietnam vet — I’m an army nurse — and I owe (the veterans), so I’m going to pay them back.”
Bixby Ho, whose father served in the Vietnam War and was affected by Agent Orange, an herbicide used during the war to remove forest cover, has attended the ceremony for about 30 years and said he does so to thank those who have served in the military because he did not.
“It’s our chance as the children of veterans to give them the accolades they deserve,” he said.
About 300 people were in attendance, and while Ho said that the ceremony has grown to the hundreds who attended this year from the handful who used to attend, Adams said that in 2017 there were many more.
“It used to be packed,” Adams said, gesturing to the 500 plastic chairs set up for the ceremony, about one-third of which were empty. “You’d be standing.”
The ceremony was canceled in 2018, so Adams believes some people weren’t sure whether it would be held this year as well.
One of the highlights is the ceremony’s finale, when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter shines a spotlight as if looking for people in part of a search-and-rescue demonstration. However, the helicopter was diverted this year as it was needed elsewhere.
Ross said he was aware of only one time in the ceremony’s history in which the helicopter was unavailable for the demonstration.
A second part of the aerial memorial, a red vintage aircraft owned by Hawaiian Airlines, was flown for the ceremony and circled above the cemetery three times before flying away.