Voices from the past, lessons for the future

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Bubba Franks
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Command Information
If walls could talk, and pictures are worth a thousand words, the Air Force’s Art Gallery’s new exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War could tell the story of a generation of service men and women who served during the conflict.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III hosted a ceremony dedicating the new Vietnam Art Exhibit in the Pentagon and thanked members of that conflict with a commemorative pin May 26.

“These 26 images represent the more than 58,000 U.S. military members who lost their lives in Vietnam,” Welsh said. “They serve as a living legacy to those who were held prisoner, and they speak for the 114 heroes who died in captivity. They all returned with honor.”

Surrounded by Vietnam veterans, service members and civilians, Welsh spoke on how the Vietnam War fundamentally changed the way the military approached warfare.

After Vietnam, the military took a hard look at what went well and what didn’t, to include development of combat systems, training and recruiting, as well as the way the military built the joint force.

“Everything changed after that because of the lessons that you (Vietnam veterans) learned … sometimes the hard way,” Welsh said. “This is about our heritage. It’s about our legacy. It’s about the pride we feel as American Airmen, and it’s about the pride we share in being part of the greatest joint fighting force on Earth.”

According to Welsh, things like Red Flag, now just part of the Air Force landscape, began after the conflict. Professional military education was adjusted, and educational programs that didn’t exist before Vietnam were developed.

“The idea of an all-volunteer force became reality and remains a reality because it works,” Welsh said. “All of that was driven by the sacrifices of remarkable people who went and did the country’s bidding in a place that none of them had ever dreamed they would be in the course of their lifetime, and they did it under very difficult circumstances.”

Bradley Riker, a Vietnam veteran who currently works as an Air Force intelligence staff officer, loved all of the artwork in the exhibit, but the one that spoke to him the most was the “Perimeter Guard – Cam Ranh Bay, F-4” painting.

Riker enlisted and was selected for linguist school in Washington. From there, he deployed to Vietnam, where he served as a linguist and actually lived on the hill shown in the painting, alongside the C-130 Hercules crew members. Although most of his reconnaissance missions were typically conducted high above the canopies of Vietnam, he would always return to what he described as a “beautiful bay” with .50 caliber machine guns.

Donald Allen, a senior analyst and Vietnam veteran, served as an AT-28 Trojan pilot assigned to the 56th Special Operations Wing, was excited about the art exhibit.

“From all the artwork I have seen, I see almost all the things I did in the Air Force,” Allen said. “I was in a search and rescue squadron, and the F-104 (Starfighters) and F-105 (Thunderchiefs) were at the same location when I flew the AT-28. The things I enjoyed doing in the Air Force are all around me in this exhibit. It’s a neat area to be in, especially because it’s right around the corner from where I work.”

Welsh also shared his feelings on all the artwork housed throughout the Pentagon, particularly the Air Force’s contribution.

“You will see … acrylic and oil and watercolor that recall timeless moments now in our Air Force’s history,” Welsh said. “Those moments were first painted in blood and now (are) captured by these other media to remind us of the blood, sweat and tears these veterans and others left behind on battlefields all over this world.”

Welsh, alongside retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, the U.S. of America Vietnam War Commemoration director, personally thanked each of the 12 Vietnam veterans in attendance for their service with a “United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration” pin.

This event is one of thousands that the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration organization has been part of to thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. Today, more than 8,000 commemorative partners across the country are committed to assisting the nation in recognizing our 7.2 million living Vietnam veterans and the 9 million families of those who served from November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975.

As the crowd dispersed in preparation for the Memorial Day weekend, the artwork stood as a reminder of what happened, what was lost, what was found and what will never be forgotten.