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Sunset Road event honors Vietnam veterans

William Topham spoke about how many Vietnam veterans were left permanently disabled by the war, at the March 29th ceremony.

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

While many Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and other events that honor Americans who served in the armed forces have moved to the internet on platforms like Zoom, on Monday, the Needham Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on Sunset Road hosted a live, in-person ceremony in honor of National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Officially signed into law in 2017, the annual observance is held on March 29, the date in 1973 when the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (often known as MACV) was disbanded and the last American combat troops left the war-torn country.

After a prayer from Tom Keating, Marine Veteran William Topham spoke about the war, noting how its first casualty came from right here in Massachusetts - North Weymouth, to be exact - but that it was very hard to determine who the last casualty was. He noted how many Americans died in service to their country, but also pointed out that the war left over a million armed forces veterans with permanent disabilities.

These veterans with disabilities have weighed heavily on the mind of Denise Garlick, the State Representative who represents the 13th Norfolk District. While it’s not rare to see politicians at events honoring veterans, it is rare that they have such a personal connection to the war. Garlick explained that before she entered the political realm, she worked as a VA nurse, and often treated Vietnam veterans that were the same age as her. At one point in her speech, she noted the Vietnam veterans were uniquely “isolated and alone” compared to veterans of other wars, and that they tended to not spend as much time together as veterans of other wars did. This deeply upset her, as she explained: “They were shattered. Just shattered.”

Denise Garlick spoke about her experience treating Vietnam War Veterans as a VA nurse.

Topham noted, and Garlick concurred, that one of the unique things about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans is that people don’t know who served in Vietnam, for a variety of reasons. Aside from the well-known veterans not wanting to talk about the war issue, Topham explained he had a friend who graduated from Boston College in three years, told his mom he’d moved out to California, and had his friend write letters postmarked from that state. In reality, he’d not only joined the Army as an artillery man, but went to Vietnam and was wounded. Upon hearing Topham’s story, Garlick said she’d heard a very similar one about a man she knew.

Topham salutes the flag at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on Sunset Road.

After the ceremony, when pressed on if they held the same event last year, or if last year’s sudden COVID lockdowns had put a squash on the late March event, Topham’s answer couldn’t have been any clearer.

“We do this every year. Every year. We just take the appropriate space, and you wear your mask. But we have held everything. The one thing we have done is reduce the amount of notifications. So, we do the Purple Heart Day, where we put up a Purple Heart Flag at Memorial Park. We had 200 people come to that, even though we didn’t put it in the paper. The good people of this town, they showed up.”

In fact, on his way to the VFW for a luncheon, Topham noted that not only did he hear from anyone saying they wouldn’t come due to COVID fears, but that there was even a World War II veteran who served in the South Pacific at the ceremony, despite his approaching ninety years old and needing to use a cane - which Upham explained was a huge deal for a man that tough.

Why do they come? Denise Garlick likely best explained the day’s significance when she declared: “We all know how they were not honored when they came home, but our presence today honors them.”

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