They were entertaining the troops last night, 10 years after the war. Wayne Newton, Jimmy Stewart and Carol Lawrence were among the performers at the Entertainers' Salute to Vietnam Veterans, part of the five-day tribute to Vietnam veterans.
A strange brew of contrasting styles met in the two-thirds full Constitution Hall. Men in black tie sat next to men in camouflage fatigues, no-nonsense military marches preceded glitzy Las Vegas medleys. But for all the patriotic words and music, Vietnam itself was rarely mentioned onstage.
The veterans who could afford the $20 tickets didn't seem to care.
"It's a relief," said Steve Kinzer, a director of Oklahoma's Department of Veteran Affairs. "We're finally recognized -- it's long overdue, 10 years late." Kinzer and his friend Phil Boatner, both Purple Heart recipients, were in the same battalion in Tay Ninh.
"A lot of Vietnam veterans didn't want to come at all," said Dave Zien, a burly former Marine, now Wisconsin Vietnam veterans director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "People thought it was a rip-off, making us pay for our own tribute. It really p----- them off they had to pay $6 to sit in the bleacher seats for the parade. But some vets are looking for reasons to take it out on people. This will show the nation that they should get behind the Vietnam vets."
The bespectacled Jimmy Stewart drew the evening's warmest response, entering to a standing ovation. "Welcome, family, friends, most of all, Vietnam veterans," Stewart said. "Alllriight!" yelled the crowd. "It's been a long, hard road to this moment. There's been a lot of controversy and some disappointment. We're going to put that behind us. You went to war, you came home, and you are all heroes," Stewart said.
"Look at this crowd? Get it on! What a group!" shouted Wayne Newton, the headliner, dressed in a black sequined tux and working the somewhat subdued crowd expertly. Newton, who entertained the troops in Vietnam in 1966, last night flew his Las Vegas entourage, including 35-piece orchestra, at his own expense.
"Let me tell you about some depressing things," said Newton at one point.
"Jane Fonda!" yelled one veteran.
"Jane Fonda is depressing . . . and I'm not all that choked up about Shirley MacLaine either. Or Joan Baez," Newton said to applause.
Gen. William Westmoreland watched the show from the balcony. "I think this tribute is long overdue, of course, and it's much appreciated by the vets," Westmoreland said before the show. "It's the first tangible recognition of Vietnam veterans."
"I didn't want to be by myself," said Rick Kowalker, who says he is a veteran suffering from delayed stress and who hitchhiked from Vermont with a huge backpack and his dog. "I spent most of the day at the memorial, just for all the guys I flew in helicopters with. I never got to go to any memorial services."