MOULTRIE — This Friday, the first ever Vietnam Veterans Day will commence at the eternal flame on the courthouse square at 8 a.m.

Gov. Sonny Perdue officially designated March 29, 2008, as the day set aside to honor the more than 58,000 U.S. service members killed including 1,582 from Georgia. However, Colquitt County organizers will hold their ceremony a day early.

The Vietnam War was the longest in U.S. history. It ended 35 years ago on March 29, 1973, when the last 2,500 American troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam, the governor’s official proclamation said.

“Due to the turbulent cultural climate of the era and the unpopularity of the 11-year conflict, many of the returning veterans did not receive the respect and gratitude they deserved for serving their nation,” Perdue said. “... Vietnam Veterans Day is an opportunity to recall, in the spirit of pride and gratitude, the heroic accomplishments of these service members who gave their lives and all those who served our country during the Vietnam conflict.”

Local veterans approved of the measure.

“We appreciate Sonny Perdue. We don’t know what brought this on, but it doesn’t matter. It makes the State of Georgia look good,” said Clem Weldon, service officer of American Legion Post 324, Colquitt County’s newest American Legion post.

Thirty Colquitt County men were killed during active duty, said April Welter, manager of the Georgia State Department of Veterans Service, Moultrie Division.

“Lynwood Murphy was the first one, I remember that,” said Hoyt Holland, chairman of the Veterans Activity Committee of Colquitt County.

Lance Cpl. Murphy was mortally wounded May 28, 1965, while defending a Marine emplacement at Chu Lai against a Viet Cong attack, according to an account in The Moultrie Observer.

“We’re up to the point in the United States there’s 600 Vietnam vets dying due to service connections as a rate daily. It’s an astounding fact given that some of these guys are in their mid-50s and they’re dying. It’s related to Agent Orange and different conditions due to their exposure to Agent Orange,” Welter said. “We’re just tickled the governor is recognizing the Vietnam veterans. This is the first time anybody has heard of a governor saying we’re going to have a Vietnam Veterans Day.

“World War II veterans came back, and they had a parade. The Korean War veterans came back, and they were celebrated. The guys that are on active duty and come home from current wars are recognized. Nobody’s ever had an official thing to recognize the veterans who served in Vietnam,” she said. “... We would like to have as many Vietnam veterans from Colquitt County as possible be there so we can recognize them for their sacrifice.”

So far, American Legion Post 324 has 51 members, Welter said. The newly formed post is interested primarily in the American Legion Children and Youth Program, including Boys State/Boys Nation, a citizenship and government program and an oratorical contest

Although district prizes are relatively small, the winner of the national oratorical competition receives $18,000 to a school of choice, she said.

“We would love for our guidance counselors to ask for that so we can have somebody out of Colquitt County win it this year,” Welter said.

American Legion also is hoping to develop shooting sports competitions and involve the local Junior ROTC program, she said.

American Legion is the first congressionally chartered veterans organization. All veterans who have served during wartime are eligible to be members. Welter is district adjutant for the 12th District of Georgia, which includes 17 posts across Southwest Georgia.

“Taking care of veterans is what we’re about,” she said.

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