Mitchell veterans honored for Vietnam War service
Duane Conzemius thought back recently on his time of service during the Vietnam War. “It went fast, but it has been awhile,” Conzemius said after a short pause.
Conzemius, along with fellow Vietnam veteran Earl Vanberkum, was presented with the Vietnam Veteran lapel pin Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., in a brief ceremony at the Mitchell Veterans Park in downtown Mitchell.
Surrounded by a small gathering of family and friends, Johnson presented the pin to Conzemius, who served in the Army, and Vanberkum, a Navy veteran, in a gesture meant to recognize, thank and honor United States military veterans who served during the Vietnam War.
Johnson said too many service members returned from the war in Vietnam, which lasted from 1955 to 1975, to a hostile reception due to the controversy of the United States' involvement. Some were openly jeered upon coming home, an inappropriate reaction to the people who gave of their time and safety to serve the United States.
“We know that America is a great country, the greatest country in existence. But it is not a perfect country,” Johnson said. “We did not do the sort of job we should have to thank these people for their service. This is an opportunity to make it right. It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
The pin features the profile of an eagle’s head on the front and the phrase: “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.” The eagle is intended to represent courage, honor and dedicated service. A blue circle matches the canton of the American flag and signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. A laurel wreath is a symbol meant to represent victory, integrity and strength. Six stars on the pin represent the six United States allies that fought alongside one another: Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and the United States.
“They served our country with great distinction. On behalf of the Department of Defense and the United States of America, we want to present them with a pin honoring their service during the Vietnam War,” Johnson said.
Vanberkum, 79, said the time since he served in the war has gone by quickly. He served on a minesweeper boat during his time in Vietnam, arriving shortly after the birth of his first son.
“My first son was born in July of 1966, and about three weeks later I took off for Vietnam, so I lost the first year of his life,” Vanberkum said. “We more or less patrolled the rivers and stopped Charlie from hauling ammo. We’d go on patrol for 60 days and then come back to port and rest up for a couple of weeks.”
Conzemius, who was accompanied to the ceremony by his wife Kathy, served in the supply chain during his time in the Army. He served about 20 miles outside Bien Hoa after arriving in Vietnam in 1966. He remained on duty until a year later, he said.
“And they didn’t let me go a day early, either,” Conzemius said with a chuckle.
He said he was grateful for the pin and the recognition, as well as the presentation by Rep. Johnson.
“I think it’s super. It’s very special,” Conzemius said.
Conzemius, 72, still works part-time at Sturdevant’s delivering auto parts around Mitchell. He previously worked in commercial printing.
Vanberkum, whose wife Ellen was also in attendance, said the moment was meaningful, especially after some planned activities were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is just wonderful. I was supposed to go on the honor flight this year to Washington, D.C. in June, but they canceled that with the virus and everything,” Venberkum said.
Vanberkum said he works part-time at Menards and enjoys volunteering at local baseball games.
Living United States veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during the period of Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, regardless of location, are eligible to receive one lapel pin.