CAMP RIPLEY — Three-hundred and fifty-three Vietnam veterans came to Camp Ripley Saturday to receive a welcome home similar to that received by troops of this generation.
“I was looking for a theme for this year’s Camp Ripley Open House and I could think of nothing better or more fitting then to welcome home Vietnam Veterans,” Minnesota Army National Guard Col. Scott A. St. Sauver, Camp Ripley post commander, said.
Camp Ripley officials said the welcome home ceremony was part of the Camp Ripley Open House, which is one way Camp Ripley’s staff seeks to thank its customers and supporters.
“Camp Ripley is what it is because of its customers and its supporters,” Minnesota Army National Guard Capt. Kristina VonBerge, Training Support Unit, personnel officer, said. “We are successful because of them and a great many of our supporters are Vietnam veterans, who help to ensure the welcome home of today’s Soldiers is not the same as the welcome home they received.”
The ceremony for the Vietnam veterans was meant to mirror that of the welcome home of a service member returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan.
The ceremony started with a bus ride, which brought the veterans down Camp Ripley’s 47th Infantry Drive, which was lined with people waving American Flags, holding signs and cheering. The group was led to their chairs, through a flag line, by a group of bagpipers.
St. Sauver opened the formal ceremony with his thanks for the veterans’ service.
“I have taught my children, soldiers all, and those men and women who are under my command to show their appreciation for all veterans,” St. Sauver said. “It is the men and women of this generation seated in this audience that has shaped how we treat today’s returning veterans, for that I thank you.”
St. Sauver also introduced the guest speakers for the event. The first speaker was Lt. Gen. (retired, brevet) Larry W. Shellito, former adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard and current Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Shellito served in Vietnam as mobile advisory team leader who lived with the Vietnamese people.
“I remember when I first came home, initially, our generation said no way,” Shellito said. “If you were like me when I came home, the only people that greeted me were my parents, my brothers and sisters and that was it. When I went to talk to my friends, it was three years later. When they asked me where I had been, I told them, they didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t talk about it for about 25 years.”
Shellito went on to speak about his new mission as the Veterans Affairs Commissioner.
“There are 381,000 veterans in the state of Minnesota,” said Shellito. “Only about 28 percent of them actually get some form of contact with the Veterans Administration. The vast majority say I’m OK, take care of my buddy.”
Shellito also challenged the young soldiers in the audience.
“For those of you in the audience, especially you young ones in uniform, I want you to study these great heroes,” said Shellito. “I want you to be proactive in ensuring that the legacy they created will sustain itself.”
Following Shellito’s remarks, Maj. Gen. (retired) Rick D. Erlandson spoke to the veterans and those gathered for the ceremony. Erlandson served in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps and later retired from the Minnesota National Guard as commanding general of the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division.
“During my career I had the privilege and the honor to serve with over four decades of great soldiers, Marines, airmen and seamen from Vietnam to the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Erlandson. “The common thread throughout this time, throughout that four and half decades, is that I always had the opportunity to serve with American’s best.”
Erlandson gave what he called his modified welcome home speech that he has delivered to those who return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To all of my Vietnam brothers, “Welcome Home!” Erlandson said. “You served our nation with honor and courage. From one soldier to another, please except my heartfelt thank you for your service. You made a difference in the lives of the people of Vietnam whether you know it or not. Your sacrifice and your service gave them, the people of Vietnam, the opportunity for a better future.”
The ceremony concluded with closing remarks from St. Sauver.
“I thank you all for being here today,”St. Sauver said. “Know that you are always welcome at Camp Ripley and if there is anything we can ever do for you, do not hesitate to ask.
“I know we will never be fully able to repay the debt that we owe this generation of heroes, but I will never pass up an opportunity to extend my thanks to them.”