“This is all of my stuff,” Norman “Butch” Petit said as he listed the various military items –– clothing, weapons, canteens, currency and medals –– included in the large wood and glass cases on display at the Appalachian Fairgrounds on Friday.
Petit, a soldier in the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War, was at the fairgrounds for the 4th Annual Veterans Homecoming to share his items and memories of his time as a squad leader, “tunnel rat,” and “point man” in Bravo Company.
“A lot of this stuff I either took off bodies, out of base camps or ... in tunnels,” Petit said. “I mailed a lot of it. I mailed it to my mother, my father, my brother, my aunt, my uncle. A lot of them ... are very personal to me because I lost 13 guys in my squad in one year.”
Passing over old photographs related to his time in service, Petit said his unit, made up of 18-21-year-olds, some fresh out of high school, lost 172 soldiers, 68 of whom were in Bravo Company.
He said one of his duties during Vietnam included the dangerous and uncertain job of “tunnel rat,” where he would seek out the Viet Cong in dug-out tunnels.
Petit said he sets up his displays at the annual homecoming event to, in part, educate the public about the Vietnam War.
“There’s very little taught about Vietnam,” he said. “It’s time ... that the public learn a little bit about it.”
Displays were set up and ready by 1 p.m., as visitors strolled through the grounds, stopping occasionally to talk with others.
Moe Baines, a board member of Veterans Homecoming, said the rest of Friday’s event activities included demonstrations by the Carter County Sheriff’s Office and EMS, and a concert featuring performances by McKeena Andrews, Rockie Lynne, Hundred Acres and Seventeen Stories, which is an Iraq war veterans band.
Today’s homecoming events will include a parade at 11 a.m. from Heritage Baptist Church in Johnson City to the fairgrounds and an opening ceremony, which will include various speakers.
Baines said the annual event was held a little earlier this year to honor Gold Star Mothers during Mother’s Day weekend.
“(A Gold Star mother) is a mother that has lost her son or daughter in war in service to our country,” he said.
Baines said the mothers, as well as Gold Star Fathers, were invited to attend a special ceremony tonight at 6, where the mothers will be presented with a rose and a certificate from the Gold Star Mothers Association.
Other events include an East Tennessee State University ROTC bridge-building demonstration. The exhibit, displays and food vendors will be out on the grounds again today.
“We encourage all veterans to come out and bring their families,” Baines said.