U.S. Army veteran Ben Peterson had a vision to put on a large-scale event that gave Vietnam veterans the long overdue welcome home that they deserved. His vision came following a two-year deployment in Iraq when he arrived home and a line of Vietnam veterans, which included American Legion Riders, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with American flags “guarding my welcome home,” he said. “They became the guardians of honor, making sure that future generations would never be shamed for their service. We all know that they can’t hold that position forever. And that’s why it’s up to us, my generation from our wars, where we have to take up that mantle.”
With the help of the American Legion Department of Florida, Peterson’s vision became a reality May 27-28 where 30,000 veterans and their families gathered for the first Heroes Honor Festival at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The Department of Florida “saw the value of this, they saw the value of being able to present the awareness (of this festival) to all of the younger veterans to get involved,” said Jim Wineland, Department of Florida Legion Riders director who first worked with Peterson on getting the Legion involved, including the Legion Riders to help spread awareness about the event. “It’s to bring veterans all together. That’s why we did all of this. It’s the camaraderie, the age groups are coming together.”
Wineland, an Air Force Vietnam veteran who served in-country, added that Vietnam veterans dealt with the draft, “a camaraderie that we have different than other services.” But that difference “is being bridged here” at the Heroes Honor Festival.
Attendees of the festival experienced a veterans resource expo and a main stage that featured country music performances by stars Toby Keith, Justin Moore and Craig Morgan, remembrance ceremonies, and remarks from special guests that included Major Gen. Patrick Brady, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot and Medal of Honor recipient who received The American Legion’s Distinguished Service Medal; and Lt. Col. Oliver North, a combat decorated Marine veteran who is a recipient of The American Legion National Commander’s Public Relations Award.
The American Legion Department of Florida, a gold sponsor for the festival, had a PROJECT: Vet Relief tent and a department tent set up in the festival’s resource expo at different locations. Outside the Department of Florida’s tent festival attendees played corn hole on hand-painted patriotic corn hole sets that the department raffled off; signed up to win a one-year free membership in The American Legion Department of Florida; and learned more about what the Legion does at the state and national level. The Department of Florida Legion Riders also gave away a Legion Riders and Heroes Honor Festival patch for any motorcycle rider that signed up for the Ride for Freedom that left Sunday morning from the speedway and traveled to a nearby Harley Davidson. The ride was presented by Rolling Thunder and American Legion Riders of Florida. The department gave away all 500 patches.
Being a part of the Heroes Honor Festival is “something we are excited to do,” said Department of Florida Commander Jerry Brandt, whose project during his time as commander is PROJECT: Vet Relief. “This (festival) is a chance for The American Legion to say, ‘Hey, this is what we do’ to people outside of the Legion. On an average year we contact hundreds of thousands of veterans, not only in The American Legion but all veterans in the state of Florida. That’s who we are working for.”
The Department of Florida’s PROJECT: Vet Relief program provides emergency financial assistance to veterans and focuses on veteran suicide prevention efforts by supporting 10 Florida-based veteran-owned nonprofits that treat veterans with PTSD. In its eight years of existence, PROJECT: Vet Relief has helped 1,000 veterans and raised $1 million in donations.
Larry Roberts, the Department of Florida’s VA Entitlements chairman and service officer, volunteered at the PROJECT: Vet Relief booth along with his wife Donna. They accepted donations for the program and brought five boxes of materials that include pamphlets on PROJECT: Vet Relief, veteran suicide prevention, Agent Orange VA benefits, state benefits and more, as well as gave away koozies, bracelets and sweat rags that featured the VA suicide prevention crisis line and the Department of Legion Family logos. The festival was cancelled Friday evening due to rain. On Saturday it ran from 12:30-9:30 p.m. and the department was down to less than a half a box of materials and giveaways by 3 p.m. And they gave away 400 of the sweat rags.
“In the Soldier’s Creed there is a line that says we will never leave a fallen comrade behind, and I believe in that,” Larry said. “So by me being here and doing this, I’m helping my brothers and sisters by making sure they are getting the contacts they need. And it helps me by helping them. That’s my therapy.”
Vietnam veteran Jimmy Archer and his wife Roberta visited the PROJECT: Vet Relief booth. Donna and Larry shared what the program is and how The American Legion helps. Jimmy responded that “most of us are too proud to ask for help.” Donna responded, “If you don’t want to talk about your experience, we will get you involved in fishing or whatever you enjoy. That’s what PROJECT: Vet Relief does. We just want veterans to know that they’re not alone.”
Larry showed Jimmy how to connect with him on Facebook and be a part of his Buddy Check Monday where he checks on veterans and asks others to do the same. “If I know something that benefits veterans and I don’t share it, what am I doing? I’m leaving them behind,” Larry said. “So by doing the Buddy Checks, find out what’s going on and just talk.”
Larry hugged Jimmy and let him know that “I’m here to listen. I’m here to care.”
“(Jimmy) needed to hear that he wasn’t alone and that he wasn’t forgotten,” Donna said.
Visitors to the American Legion Department of Florida’s tents learned about Buddy Checks and wanted to know how to get involved.
“It’s touching a veteran’s heart at the right time and what a perfect moment … Memorial Day weekend,” said Fifth District Commander Lena Heredia-Perez, an advocate for Buddy Checks. When she served as commander of Post 283 in Jacksonville, Heredia-Perez and her husband Samuel checked in on elderly veterans during hurricane season. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about taking care of each other.”
Heredia-Perez said it was important for The American Legion to be at the Heroes Honor Festival. “We are the best kept secret. We need to be out like we are today and spread the word (of what we do). The American Legion saved my husband’s life and gave him purpose. It gave me purpose.”
Heredia-Perez said that Samuel was a Humvee driver in Afghanistan. When he came home from serving, she took him to an American Legion post. When they left, he said to her, “I found my home. They understand what I’ve been through. I don’t have to explain myself. They get it.” Ever since then it has been her “mission to take care of veterans.”
It’s that service to those who served that Peterson reminded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that they must uphold. He asked veterans from his wars to turn to Vietnam veterans in the crowd and salute them.
“When we salute you, we are communicating that we see you, we see you for your courageous service, we see you for how you were shamed, we see you for the fight you took to the VA (for Agent Orange benefits), and we see you for being the guardians of honor,” he said. Then he asked the Vietnam veterans to salute back. “You see us as your legacy, you see us as the future generation that will never allow veterans to be shamed, and you see us as the legacy to carry on your position as a guardian of honor.”