“Thank you, Captain Stringham, for bringing my son home from Vietnam.”
A 95-year-old man spoke the words of gratitude to Glenn Stringham amid Hurricane Katrina deployment by Stringham and other Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers in 2005.
“That’s nice of you to say that to me,” Stringham told the father of one of the men under his command three decades earlier. “But that’s not how it works. I was a commander. It was your son, one of my soldiers, who kept me alive during Vietnam.”
While those simple expressions of gratitude have occurred too infrequently since the Vietnam War, Southern Baptists will say thank you during their annual meeting to the nearly 9 million Americans – including an estimated 1 million Southern Baptists – who served in the Vietnam War.
The June 16 commemoration, on the opening morning of the two-day convention in Columbus, Ohio, coincides with a national effort signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012 to honor Vietnam veterans during the 50th anniversary of key events during the war, culminating in 2025 marking its official end in 1975. The national commemoration effort aims to involve community groups throughout the country, including churches, in honoring Vietnam veterans.
Glenn Stringham as an Army commander in Vietnam.
Doug Carver, executive director of chaplaincy for the North American Mission Board, noted, “Although these heroes made great sacrifices to keep us free and secure as a democratic nation, many of them came back home to an environment of hostility and disrespect shown toward the long war and even the members of the armed services.”
Too many Vietnam veterans returned from their combat tour to face anti-war jeers, mockery and boos, Carver said. Some were even spat upon. For the first time in American history, a generation of veterans quickly put away their uniforms because of the war’s unpopularity.
“The nation never formally welcomed our Vietnam veterans home with a heroes’ parade like we do today,” said Carver, a former U.S. Army chief of chaplains. “We never did something so important for anyone who is willing to lay down their lives for others –that’s simply to say, ‘Thanks and welcome home.’”
Carver and SBC President Ronnie Floyd will lead the convention’s commemoration.
Stringham, who served as a bivocational pastor after retiring from the Army, said he didn’t face much of the disrespect that other veterans encountered because he continued to serve in the military long after the war, but many of the men in his command did. The Vietnam War remains something he and his fellow veterans rarely discuss with others.
“It was like, ‘You’re home.’ There wasn’t any kind of fanfare – except with family – but there wasn’t any kind of, ‘Hey, we’re glad you’re home, thank you for serving,’” said Stringham, who as a 24-year-old in the Army led nearly 200 men during his year serving in the Vietnam theater.
“It was just like, ‘Okay, you’re home. You did it.’”
Former SBC President Bobby Welch, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, believes it’s important for Southern Baptists to honor Vietnam veterans. Welch recommitted his life to Christ after nearly dying when shot by a Viet Cong soldier.
“Anytime a person gives their best to help us in any way, such an action has earned and deserves a heartfelt ‘thank you!’” said Welch, currently the associate executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “Everyone agrees that is certainly true for the fireman, the policeman, the ambulance driver and workers. How much more is that true for military personnel who risk their lives, family, future and more to protect not only us personally but our country’s future? Regardless of political maneuvers in America or globally, all veterans of Vietnam are worthy of a sincere thank you.”
Carver encourages churches that want to honor Vietnam veterans to do so in both public and small-group gatherings. Allowing veterans to share their stories – both in worship services and in support group settings – not only will educate younger generations on the sacrifices made by veterans but will contribute to the healing process as well.
“Many of our Vietnam veterans have never shared their personal stories and combat experiences, especially those who sit in our church pews,” Carver said. “Because no one was interested in hearing their stories and the war was so unpopular, they basically closed that painful foot locker of their lives – and never reopened it.”
Welch reminds churches not to forget about the families who were left behind when American troops went to Vietnam.
“Remind [your congregation] that those who stayed home also gave up a lot. Some never saw their loved ones return home,” Welch said. “As they look around, remind them how much and how many it takes to have a free country.”
For more information about the Department of Defense’s Vietnam Veterans Commemoration Program, visit vietnamwar50th.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. Editor’s Note: The estimate of Vietnam veterans who were Southern Baptists is based on the statistics showing that Southern Baptists generally make up 18 percent of the armed services.)