TOGUS — More than 150 people went to the state’s veterans hospital Thursday to thank and honor Americans who served in Vietnam, part of an ongoing remembrance marking a half-century since the war.

Dozens of veterans attended the event at the Togus campus of the VA Maine Healthcare System, many wearing pins, jackets, hats and other garb showing their years of service and decorations they received.

Speakers included Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Angus King, as well as Department of Veterans Affairs officials and representatives of the other three members of Congress.

The ceremony came just a day after President Trump fired his veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin.

King said that one way to thank veterans for their service is to hold the federal department to account.

“We have to say thanks by making sure the VA works,” King said. “By nagging Ryan Lilly, by being sure that benefits are paid on time, that hospital bills are being paid, that veterans’ credit is not compromised.”

All spoke of the disrespect that some U.S. soldiers faced when returning home from the unpopular war and the need to recognize their efforts now.

That message was encouraging to Joseph Obrin Sr., a 69-year-old Topsham man who served two tours in Vietnam in the late 1960s with the 1st Infantry Division.

Obrin was shot four times during a run-in with Viet Cong fighters. He also saw many fellow soldiers die in a clash with North Vietnamese soldiers who had overrun a mountain in the southern part of the country.

Obrin has been honored with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. But when he first came home from the war, he said, protesters spat on him as he walked through an airport in California.

“It was a hard thing to swallow,” Obrin recalled. He doesn’t usually attend ceremonies like Thursday’s, he continued, because they’re “emotional. But I’m glad I did it. It’s a little bit of healing.”

Obrin also went to the ceremony Thursday to honor his brother, Mickey. Both fought in Vietnam and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when they came home. About a dozen years ago, Mickey commit suicide, Obrin said, his voice cracking at the memory.

“It’s hard,” he said. “He’s buried right there in Togus cemetery.”

More than 58,000 U.S. service members died in Vietnam. Another 1,626 were missing in action.

U.S. involvement began in the 1950s and escalated through the 1960s before troops were finally withdrawn on March 29, 1973 – 45 years ago Thursday.

The ceremony Thursday was one of many happening around Maine and the country. It was part of an ongoing set of remembrances launched under former President Barack Obama.

This year’s event was meant specifically to highlight the events of 1968, according to Ryan Lilly, director of the VA Maine Healthcare System. In that year, U.S. operations peaked and communist forces launched the Tet Offensive in an attempt to overthrow the South Vietnamese government.

King, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said he strives to ask hard questions of current conflicts in places such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea.

“The way I want to say thanks is to be damn sure we don’t commit young people to a war that isn’t in the vital interest of our country, that we take it seriously and understand its effects on lives,” the senator said. “Most of you are heroes for what you did and accomplished, but also because you answered your country’s call. I’m here to say welcome and thank you.”

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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