ELMA — Vietnam veterans from across Grays Harbor County converged on the Elma Fraternal Order of Eagles hall for a welcome and thank you more than 50 years in the making. One that many people consider long overdue.
More than 60 veterans and their families, and many fond and difficult memories, filled the room last Wednesday. Pictures were taken, hugs were exchanged.
What drew the veterans there is part of the 13-year commemoration of the Vietnam War. The recognition began Memorial Day 2012 and runs through Veterans Day 2025. President Barack Obama’s proclamation in May 2012 set the dates. The commemoration was established in a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush.
On Wednesday, Elma Mayor Jim Sorensen addressed the crowd.
“Fifty years seems like a long time, but for those of you who served, 50 years seems like yesterday,” Sorensen said.
“Last night,” somebody from the audience replied.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor of Washington’s 6th Congressional District, gave a short speech.
Then Sorensen began calling a roll of names; Kilmer began shaking hands.
Men, women, sons, daughters and widows of vets. As each veteran’s name was called out, they or a family member would make their way up to the front of the room to Kilmer.
He would greet them, thank them for their service and sacrifice, talk with each briefly, and present them with a pin. It was a small act, but it held great meaning for all involved.
“This brings back great memories of when the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial came,” Bill Wickwire said of the time about five years ago when veterans from across Western Washington visited the traveling memorial in Elma.
Terri Bakse of Elma was there for her father-in-law and her late husband.
William E. Bakse Sr. retired after a 32-year career as a command sergeant major.
“My father-in-law served two tours in Vietnam,” Terri Bakse said.
“Bill Sr. deserved this,” she said of the pin on her chest. “He was picked up out of the rice paddies.”
Her husband, William E. Bakse Jr., was a career officer. “He spent his time in the United States, Europe and the Middle East,” Terri Bakse said.
There were tears shed.
“I can’t talk right now,” Sorensen said after the ceremony, emotions overtaking him.
In total, 63 pins were presented to veterans or their family members.
The ceremony was the first of its kind for Kilmer. He likely will be conducting many more across the Olympic Peninsula.
More than 58,000 Americans were killed in action, 300,000 were wounded in action, and 1,700 are still missing in action, Kilmer said.
“50 years on, we’re here to say something you didn’t hear enough 50 years ago,” he said. “And that’s thank you, on behalf of your country, on behalf of your community and as your representative. I personally want to say thank you.”
“We say thank you for serving our nation. We say thanks for giving your all. We say we are proud of you and grateful to you. And your service was not in vain.
”What impresses me most is that when you came home, you continued to step up for your community.