GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Retired U.S. Air Force Col. William “Bill” G. Byrns was tortured and beaten when he was held prisoner for 309 days during the Vietnam War.
But his pain continued for nearly another 50 years after he returned home by a society that seemingly forgot, if not ignored and demeaned, the soldiers who fought in one of the country’s most-unpopular wars.
The inaugural Vietnam Veterans Day Ceremony March 30 at the TAPS Monument was, at long last, a way to finally say, “Welcome Home.”
Byrns, of Fleming Island, spoke to several hundred veterans and friends. His voice was strong, his commitment to his mission never wavered. A pair of passing trains couldn’t keep him from telling a story of proudly serving his country – even if it wasn’t always popular.
“I got in the military because my dad was in the military,” he said. “I grew up in a family who was unapologetically patriotic.
“I’m just a fighter pilot, not a speaker.”
President Donald Trump declared March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day in 2017.
“Today is a day of healing for all of us,” said Gary Newman, past president of the Clay County Chapter 1059 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “Today, we all come together as one family. Yes, it’s been a long time. What’s really relevant is this isn’t an isolated event. As a combat veteran, all I can say is thank you to our nation and to our president.”
Others were there to say, “thank you” and “welcome home,” too. A busload of veterans from Moosehaven were special guests, as well as Clay County Commission chairman Mike Cella, Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Green Cove Police Department and 14 members of the Patriot Guard, a group that originally was formed to block military funeral protests from the Westboro Baptist Church.
“This took a long time – 50 years for some of us,” said David Treffinger, president of the VVA’s Clay County Chapter. “We’re finally being accepted. It’s good to say, ‘welcome home.’”
The TAPS monument honors fallen Clay County soldiers dating back to the Civil War. With 21 fallen soldiers, the Vietnam War, which lasted from Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, was the deadliest in county history. Nationally, 58,320 died, and there currently are 1,600 who still are listed as missing in action.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” Cella said. “Some Americans turned their back on you, but you never turned your back on America.
“Welcome home. And well done.”
When Byrns spoke, it was 46 years and two days after he won his release from the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison camp during Operation Homecoming. He was shot down by anti-aircraft fire while on a mission over North Vietnam on May 23, 1972.
“Being a POW wasn’t fun,” he said. “I lived in a concrete cell with a bucket for the bathroom. They had my physical freedom and they got me to the end of my rope mentally. But God was in charge. God gave me peace.”
And now, an appreciative nation is giving him, and other Vietnam veterans, the recognition – and welcome home – he deserves.