As Patricia Finley played taps on her bugle, some veterans fought back tears.
A half-century after many had served in the Vietnam War, the now-familiar tune — long associated with mourning at military funerals — brought back sad memories and conflicted emotions for the aging warriors in attendance at a National Vietnam War Veterans Day recognition at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
“We never got a welcome home,” said Manuel “Buddy” Saiz, who served in both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army starting in 1971.
The ceremony included a 21-gun salute, the presentation of a memorial wreath and comments from Denise Baker, an administrative officer at the cemetery.
Baker told the assembly more than 6,000 organizations from around the country would be holding similar events to “recognize Vietnam veterans and their families and express our deep gratitude for what they did for this country.”
And there was Finley, capping it off with a heart-wrenching rendition of taps.
It was a brief, poorly attended vehicle for honoring those who paid an emotional, mental and physical price to take part in one of the most controversial conflicts in the nation’s history.
The fact it was held a day in advance of the actual remembrance day — March 29 — may have thrown off some people, a few of the attendees said.
March 29 was chosen as Vietnam Veterans Day because on that day 49 years ago, the last of U.S. combat troops departed South Vietnam following a lengthy and costly war that shook the public’s faith in what America stood for.
Many who fought in Vietnam came back conflicted on some level, unsure how their fellow countrymen and women felt about them.
The war’s toll was high: More than 58,000 Americans — including nearly 400 from New Mexico — were killed in the years America was officially engaged in Southeast Asia.
Dan Nava, the cousin of Marine Lance Cpl. Francis X. Nava, the first Santa Fean killed in Vietnam, was on hand for the commemoration.
“I want to honor my cousin,” said Nava, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the early 1970s. “I want to honor the people who served and never got a thank you.”
He said all the veterans on hand lost many good friends in the conflict.
The vast majority of attendees were from local American Legion Post 12 — including Finley, the post’s historian and bugle player.
She said anything the country can do to honor the veterans who served in Vietnam and make them feel a part of the community — “part of anything” — is helpful.
Some of the veterans present expressed disappointment more was not done to publicize the event, which drew, if you count family members and journalists, no more than 20 attendees.
U.S. Navy veteran Terry Becker said the sparse turnout was reflective of the attitude toward Vietnam vets.
“There are very few events to commemorate those who came back 50 years ago,” he said.
Others in attendance said it speaks to a general lack of knowledge or respect for a bitter conflict that divided the nation and helped define the turbulent 1960s.
For many young people today, “history started the day they were born,” said one Vietnam veteran in attendance.
Carolyn Carrillo Luna, wife of U.S. Army veteran Mike Luna, said the younger people she deals with “don’t know about Pearl Harbor, Vietnam or 9/11.”
Mike Luna said that’s a shame because the Vietnam veterans are the sort of people who would volunteer to fight in today’s Russian-Ukraine war. (At age 65, Luna, an Iraq War vet, said he’s willing to go.)
Juan Martinez a U.S. Army veteran and foreman at the cemetery, said the cemetery got very little notice from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees national cemeteries, to plan Monday’s event a day in advance of the official National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
Former President Donald Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017 marking March 29 as the holiday, but that does not mean every agency celebrating the day is doing so on March 29. Media reports from around the country indicate that some entities began marking it over the past weekend, while others plan to do so later this week.