After the unveiling of Bladensburg's new Korean and Vietnam War Memorial at the Peace Cross yesterday, an honor guard fired three rounds.
At the crack of the first rifle shots, James Warner, 42, a six-year Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, jumped and instinctively reached for a stranger.
"I almost hit the deck," he said.
Warner came from Cabin John to join about 130 other veterans and friends and families of veterans who strained to feel the breeze under the blazing sun, as the polished Georgia granite memorial was dedicated.
Warner and others said the Vietnam War, to some extent, was still part of them, and they were there because, he said, "it helps to remind people . . . ."
They listened to speeches by Bladensburg, Prince George's County and Maryland officials, watched the Veterans of Foreign Wars place 10 wreaths on the monument, and applauded the new 12-foot, six-sided marker before together singing "America."
Finally, most of the group adjourned across the street to the air-conditioning of the Back Alley Restaurant for a pre-paid buffet lunch.
"I'm here because of one specific loss," said 37-year-old Terry Mansberry of Oxon Hill, a veteran of three tours of duty in Vietnam who came dressed in fatigues. "A buddy --he was more than a friend, I consider him my brother--he died in my arms in Vietnam in '66. We were under mortar attack. He got a piece of shrapnel in the chest. I'm doing this for him."
Peggy Raynor fanned herself with a program as Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) spoke of the wars' "moral and tactical dilemmas." Raynor, whose first husband died in 1978 after returning from Vietnam, contributed the flag from her husband's casket for yesterday's ceremony. Raynor planned to spend the day at a picnic with her late husband's parents, Kenneth and Winnie Raynor of Hyattsville, as she has done every Fourth of July since 1978.
Officials credited the idea for the stone, located across the road from the World War I memorial cross and near the World War II memorial scroll at Rte. 1 and Bladensburg Road, to William A. Hickey Jr., 68, former national commander of the Irish War Veterans, and Francis Salveron, 73, who was a personal aide to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur from 1942 until 1945.
"We were having a drink and I said I thought it was remiss that we hadn't done anything for the boys who fought in these wars," Hickey said. He and Salveron raised $8,800 from civic, patriotic and fraternal groups to pay for the monument, he said.
Next, Hickey hopes to raise $900 for a new flag pole at the site.
Danial Long, chairman of the Bladensburg Promotion Committee, told the group, "We got three dates for the Vietnam War. The Pentagon gave us one set, the Veterans Administration gave us another and the Defense Department gave still another. We finally settled on the same dates that are on the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial downtown."
Inscribed on the stone is the U.S. Military Academy motto, "Duty, honor, country," beneath the dates, "Korea; June, 1950-July, 1953" and "Vietnam: July, 1959-May, 1975," the official dates of the first and last American casualties in that war.
But former POW Larry Stark, speaking at the dedication ceremony, said he remains certain that "Americans are still alive and being held against their will in Indochina."
Afterward, over beer, Stark and Warner praised Hoyer's address. "You can't ease the pain of Vietnam veterans as long as you hold out the fact that it was a dishonorable war," Stark said.
In his speech, Hoyer called the Vietnam war, "one of America's most traumatic experiences as a nation and individually." Speaking of a generation of returning veterans who were "treated with indifference, silence and at times hostility," he said, "It is time to evaluate the long-term damage and repay a debt to a generation of young Americans."