Vietnam veterans in Petersburg were recognized by Brig. Gen. Simon Brown II Alaska State Defense Force and Verdie Bowen, Director of the Alaska’s Office of Veterans Affairs during a ceremony March 29, 2022 in Petersburg High School. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Vietnam Veterans and their families in Petersburg were honored at a ceremony March 29 as part of Vietnam Veterans Day. Alaska military dignitaries, family and friends attended the event at the high school gym. KFSK’s Angela Denning spoke with some of the local veterans and has this story:

March 29, 1973 was the day the last troops were withdrawn from the Vietnam War. Now, March 29 is remembered with welcome home celebrations.

Vietnam veteran, Paul Anderson, helped organize the one in Petersburg.

“It’s worked out beautiful,” he said. “It was a great turnout and I’m so proud of the community.”

Afterwards, many attendees went to a reception and reflected on the event.

The ceremony was emotional for Kathy Emmenegger.

“I thought it was just very nice,” she said, choking up.

Her husband, Dennis, died from cancer caused by Agent Orange, chemicals the U.S. used to clear jungle vegetation. He fought in 1965-66 with artillery.

She says today’s celebration was a stark contrast from when her husband returned.

“It wasn’t easy when they came home,” Emmenegger said. “They were spit on. Rocks were thrown at them. They were called baby killers.”

Emmenegger was pregnant when her husband left and they talked only one time the first year he was gone. Instead, they wrote letters until he returned, which was close to the 4th of July.

“And people started letting off fireworks and I remember one time he jumped and crawled underneath the bed,” she said. “He was a different person.”

An empty table was set at the Vietnam Veterans War Commemoration in Petersburg symbolizing the prisoners of war and those missing in action. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Sitting next to Emmenegger is Karin McCullough. Her husband, Gary, also died from Agent Orange cancer.  He was a front line medic. Although he had pitted skin from the chemical exposure when he first returned, doctors focused on his other war injuries. He later died in 1993. McCullough’s daughter, Laurel, was 16 at the time. She remembers her father telling her about the war when they were out fishing together. The ceremony was emotional for her too.

“I think what got me was the age of the Veterans,” she said. “Because I only knew my dad as a very young man and seeing how old they are and knowing that my dad was younger than I am now when he died. It really brings home just the loss of. . . life. . . and potential.”

The families say the Veterans Affairs system has been a great help to them over the years.

At a nearby table is David Burleigh. He was a door gunner on a helicopter. He was young, signing up before he graduated high school. The return for him was so bad that he didn’t tell anyone he was in the service for over a decade. He had done two tours in Vietnam. In between them he got a 30-day leave to come home. One Sunday, he decided to attend church in his uniform.

“One of the people in church stood up and called me a baby killer,” Burleigh said. “And the pastor reinforced what she was saying. And it was very difficult.”

The U.S. Coast Guard color guard presents flags at the Vietnam Veterans welcome home ceremony at Petersburg High School, March 29, 2022. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSk)

He’s felt a lot better in recent years as Vietnam Veterans are honored through annual school events. He doesn’t regret going to war and says he gained strength and life-long skills there. But there are also life-long struggles like not being able to watch certain movies.

“I went to Saving Private Ryan, which was absolutely the worst thing that I could have possibly done,” Burleigh said. “All the not hearing what’s going on, not feeling the pain of getting injured, not knowing what’s going on around you. It took me right back.“

Tim Koeneman doesn’t regret going to Vietnam either.

“Life has been a great experience for me,” he said. “So, I’m not one of those guys you’re going to find on the bar stool.”

He was in a mechanized infantry. Even though 250 others died in his battalion he still feels fortunate. His father had been in World War II, which was worse, he says. Vietnam wasn’t all tragedy for all veterans.

“Individually, guys went on with their lives,” Koeneman said. “They became farmers, they became CFOs and CEOs and everything else. They’re just like the rest of the population.”

One Petersburg resident was killed during the war—Donald Kito. He died in 1967 and is buried in the local cemetery.

All military veterans have benefits but many haven’t signed up for them. The paperwork can be daunting. Looking into these details is a free service for all veterans and Alaska has advocates who specialize in helping people go step by step through the process.