Pa. officials dedicate portion of highway in ‘long overdue thanks’ to Vietnam veterans

When Centre Hall resident Bob Booz returned from serving in the Vietnam War, he was told to put on civilian clothes before getting off the plane. That was something Booz said he will never forget. He was one of more than 8 million soldiers who served and were not always welcomed home with open arms.

“Bad things happen during wars, but we really shouldn’t blame those veterans, those enlisted people, those people that we don’t ask them to go there,” said Brian Querry, director of Centre County Veterans Affairs. “We tell them to go there, and we tell them to do their duty, and these people did their duty ... I hope somebody said by now, ‘welcome home.’ ”

In an effort to honor central Pennsylvania’s Vietnam veterans, a portion of state Route 192 was dedicated and renamed the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. On Wednesday, state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-McElhattan, state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte and state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, hosted a dedication ceremony and unveiled a replica of the highway sign to more than 15 veterans, county officials and community members at the Centre Hall Lions Club.

Local Vietnam veterans gather with state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz and former state Rep. Mike Hanna Sr. around a replica of the sign for the new Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway on Wednesday. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“There are stories of these veterans coming home and literally being spit upon, being abused verbally, getting off the airplane as soon as they can trying to change into their civies because they didn’t want to be conspicuous,” Querry said.

During the war, some American troops volunteered, but the United States military drafted 2.2 million men to serve in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. The majority of Vietnam veterans didn’t ask to serve, Querry said, describing how some were spit on and verbally abused after they returned to the United States.

“In the military, you don’t get asked to do anything. You get told to do things,” Querry said, adding that they were only doing their jobs.

Wednesday’s ceremony was meant to honor and appropriately thank Pennsylvania’s Vietnam veterans, said former state Rep. Mike Hanna. Describing the disrespect veterans received as “a sad time in our nation’s history,” Hanna said it was a thanks that was long overdue.

Former state Rep. Mike Hanna Sr. speaks Wednesday during the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway dedication ceremony at the Centre Hall Lions Club. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“It is my hope that this dedication will serve as a reminder to those veterans,” Hanna said. “When they see the signs, and they recognize that they’re traveling on a highway named in honor of them, that we do respect them and that we are ... apologizing for the treatment that they received.”

Hanna said he hopes the signs will represent an ongoing duty to support and recognize veterans for generations to come. The signs were scheduled to be hung on state Route 192 Wednesday afternoon, representatives from the state Department of Transportation said.

By remembering Vietnam veterans, Corman said individuals will be able to create a better society and not repeat past mistakes. When people drive on state Route 192, Corman said he hopes everyone will take a moment to reflect and teach younger generations about the war and those who served.

As he was a child during the war, Benninghoff said he always “felt less” for not serving in the military and said it was a privilege to be among “honorable” veterans — “the dignitaries that are here.”

David Dimmick, of Bellefonte and a U.S. Air Force and Pennsylvania Air National Guard veteran, said dedicating a 20-mile stretch of asphalt might seem like “the right thing to,” but in his mind, it’s “highly inadequate.”

Veteran David Dimmick speaks Wednesday during the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway dedication ceremony at the Centre Hall Lions Club. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“I hope we go behind the pomp that’s taking place here this morning and think about the sacrifices of the past, the present, and the sacrifices that will be made in the future,” Dimmick said. “We’re here to honor those who were part of an unpopular conflict, one that fostered discontent, anger and even hatred — that thing called the Vietnam War.”

The Vietnam War was the war that “tore our nation apart” and brought battles of words, destruction and tear gas into the streets, Dimmick said.

Defending freedom requires a willingness to stand up against oppression, Dimmick said. He said people continue to make sacrifices for “a greater good,” but for Vietnam War veterans, Dimmick said their legacy is one of making sacrifices for freedom when it was “the unpopular thing to do.”

“We want to honor you beyond this strip of highway and honor you in our hearts and forever in our minds,” Dimmick said.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.