SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was a teenager when U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, recalled the conflict's political and emotional turmoil Thursday during a ceremony at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Rauner presented dozens of veterans of the Vietnam era, from 1955 to 1975, with pins commemorating their service.
Although he was too young, the 61-year-old Rauner said many of his friends and relatives served. He said he supported the war, but he recalls the toll it took and the way the conflict divided America like no other since the Civil War.
"That's why I think it's important that we remember that our veterans who served then were incredibly brave, incredibly strong and courageous," Rauner said after the event. "It took an internal strength and belief in our nation and our flag to serve then because the war was so controversial."
The event was sponsored by the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs. Director Erica Jeffries, a West Point graduate who served as a Blackhawk helicopter aviation officer at Fort Hood, Texas, noted the disrespect many Vietnam veterans faced in returning home, targets of war opponents' derision.
Vietnam veterans ensured that the national attitude changed for future service members, she said.
"It was because of all of you, who made sure that our veterans were respected," Jeffries said. "You made sure that another veteran would never come back from serving overseas or serving anywhere and not get the proper recognition and respect that they deserve."
The event was presented as "50th anniversary commemoration," although U.S. military advisers were in the country by the mid-1950s and remained until North Vietnamese forces toppled Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, in 1975.