The Saranac Lake High School Marching Band plays during the Memorial Day parade on May 28.
Southeast Asia came home to Saranac Lake on Monday, May 28, as guest speaker JR Owens gave a tribute to the men and women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.
After the parade down Broadway and Main Street, from the Veterans Memorial Association to the band shell at Riverside Park, Owens first spoke of the military draft held on Dec. 1, 1969. Open to all men born between 1944 and 1950, it was the first draft since World War II. Blue plastic capsules — 366 of them containing days of the year — were put in a large glass jar. They were plucked out of the jar, and the men with birth dates that matched were drafted in order. The first date was Sept. 14. In all, 195 dates that year were the first to be drafted.
Lotteries were held each year until 1975, with the eligible birth dates changing by one year each year. For example, in 1969, the lottery applied to men born as of 1950. In 1970, that date changed to 1951. In 1971, it was 1952 and so on.
“In the draft lottery for my birth year of 1952, my administrative processing number was 280,” Owens said. “This lottery changed the course of my life forever.”
Owens shared some statistics provided by the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association.
“Ninety-one percent of Vietnam veterans say they are glad they served,” Owens said. “Seventy-four percent of Vietnam veterans said they would serve again, even knowing the results.”
Owens reminded the crowd that the U.S. military did not lose one major battle in Vietnam.
“The fall of Saigon happened two years after the military from America left Vietnam,” Owens said. “How could we lose a war we had already stopped fighting? We fought to an agreed stalemate in 1973.”
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. includes the names of 58,195 Americans.
“We often ask ourselves why all of these men and women gave their lives for the United States of America when it became apparent that the military would not be allowed to win the war,” Owens said. “I believe the answer is in part that they fought and died for each other.”
The hope, since the Vietnam War ended, is that Americans support the military personnel, even if they don’t support the wars they fight, Owens said.
“The veterans’ lives will never be the same after serving in Vietnam and Southeast Asia,” Owens said. “They have been and will be forever changed. This is neither good nor bad but just the way it is. War does that to all warriors, their families and their friends.”
Parade and ceremony
A number of people participated in the Memorial Day parade in Saranac Lake, including members of the American Legion Post 447, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3357, Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, veterans on motorcycles, and the Saranac Lake High School marching band led by Keith Kogut.
The master of ceremonies at the 11 a.m. service was local musician and veteran Steve Borst, who sang his song, “Village by the River,” accompanied on flute by Sue Grimm Hanley.
The high school band played the national anthem.
The Rev. Mark Reilly, pastor of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Saranac Lake, offered the Memorial Day prayer and shared news that he will be leaving soon.
“I am a naval reservist, and I was called up, and I’ll be headed overseas to the Horn of Africa in August,” Reilly said. “I’ll be gone for about a year.”
Cliff Donaldson spoke on behalf of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and read the official state proclamation for Memorial Day.
Cuomo also issued a Memorial Day statement: “On behalf of all New Yorkers, I offer my deep gratitude to the men and women of our nation's armed services who for generations have defended our country and put their lives on the line so others can live in peace. Memorial Day offers an occasion for each of us to commemorate and reflect on the tremendous sacrifice of the service members who lost their lives fighting to defend the freedom that we take for granted each day. Today we also thank our military families, and especially honor those who have lost loved ones during war. As we gather with relatives and friends this Memorial Day holiday, let us pause to pay tribute to the fallen and honor their sacrifice.”