Mike Fitzgerald spent several moments on Thursday quietly staring at a commemorative brick that signified his father’s years of service during the Vietnam War.
Mike was just 10 years old when his father, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John W. Fitzgerald Jr., was killed in action on Dec. 13, 1967, while serving with the Special Forces as a Green Beret, his son noted.
Even now, over 50 years later, Mike, a Sellersburg resident, said he still thinks about his father’s sacrifices every day, as he does with the other roughly 58,000 people who didn’t make it home from the war.
And on Thursday morning, with American flags waving peacefully against the bright blue sky, the soft sound of “Taps” moving even the strongest men to tears and the sharing of some hugs that were 50 years in the making, those sacrifices were once again brought to the forefront of everybody’s minds during the opening ceremonies of the 37th Howard County Vietnam Veterans Reunion.
The event welcomes thousands of people from Maine to California and takes place every September at a place called the “Healing Field” along Ind. 26 just a few miles southeast of Kokomo.
And though the event centers around veterans of the Vietnam War, everyone in attendance was quick to point out that all veterans and their families are welcome.
“We’re all family here,” U.S. Air Force and Vietnam War veteran Tom McCandless noted. “A World War II vet, a Korean War vet, a Vietnam vet, a Desert Storm vet, Enduring Freedom vet, whatever, you know the only difference? Their ages. We all did the same job, and this is a welcome home week for all of them.”
McCandless has been coming to the reunion for about the past 33 years, and he said the reunion itself is indescribable. You just have to see it for yourself.
“This is a truly amazing place,” McCandless said. “This is just a place where you can come here and leave everything outside. When you’re here, you’re with your brothers and sisters. And you can just come together.”
Pennsylvania resident Rich Monts, who served in the military from 1987-1996, agreed with McCandless, saying those of his and younger generations can learn a thing or two from those who fought in Vietnam.
“Coming here, it’s just like coming home,” he said. “And I absolutely love to meet people and hear their stories firsthand because those stories won’t be able to be told that way forever. So anytime I can sit and listen to them, I do. And maybe someday someone will want to hear mine, but I’m just making the most out of listening to theirs right now.”
Stationed just a few feet away from McCandless were Army veterans Dennis Crouse, James A. Dalton and Ace Enderson, who all served in the same infantry during Vietnam and use reunion week as a chance to continue that bond.
“We were just 18- and 19-year-old kids over there,” Crouse said. “And it’s something you don’t let loose of until you die. But then when you see this and think that people come all the way from Maine to come here, it goes to show you there’s something special happening on this 34 acres of land.
“And I think a lot of guys when they come here for the first time, and they come through those gates, it’s almost like a big burden’s been lifted off of them,” he continued. “They see us veterans, and they know they instantly have something in common with all of us.”
For Enderson, the reunion is about camaraderie.
“This place for me is about seeing all the guys and just being able to heal,” the Minnesota native said. “This is something you can’t wait for every year. It’s part of your life because they [fellow veterans] were the main part of your life back then. Sure it might have just been two years, but it’s something you’ll never forget. ... We saw and had to do things that no one will never understand unless you were there. And we were just kids going through those things together.”
Which leads back to Mike Fitzgerald and the ultimate sacrifice his father gave to this country, as so many have also done both before and after him.
“These are all my brothers,” Mike Fitzgerald said, fighting back tears as he took in the scene. “All of them are. I didn’t know I had so many dads. And this place helps keep my dad’s spirit alive. I promised him I wouldn’t let that die, and I know he’s here when I’m here. I know it. I feel him.”