It took a minute for Walt Emery to find what he was looking for — his membership roster for the Triad Vietnam Veterans Association — because it’s basically a few aging sheets of paper.
They’re covered on both sides with names and phone numbers written in ballpoint pen in tiny but neat old fashioned cursive.
“Let’s see … Andy. Paul. Zimmy. Lyles. Atkinson,” Emery said, ticking names off in no particular order, in a pronounced Maine accent barely softened by years living here.
He was reading aloud, searching for a couple of specific names and numbers. He paused every so often as a name triggered a memory. “Scott Treadwell … good guy,” he said with his voice trailing off.
Forgive Emery for indulging in a little nostalgia. For years, decades really, he’s been deeply involved with nearly everything the Triad Vietnam Veterans Association has gotten behind.
So breaking the news that the group plans to formally disband following today’s Memorial Day observance was unsettling for the 81-year-old.
“We just kind of agreed that it’s time,” Emery said. “People are just aging out. I hate to see it go that way, but it’s time.”
Recognizing the good
When Emery decided to join, the Triad Vietnam Veterans met at a steakhouse behind the old Memorial coliseum.
The idea, then and now, was simple. It was formed in the early 1980s as a nonprofit with the aim of raising money for charities and its purpose was two-fold: pitch in to help the greater good and provide an outlet for veterans who had every reason to be bitter about the treatment they received upon returning home.
“We wanted to do something for the community to recognize the good things about (Vietnam) veterans,” Paul Vaspory told the Journal in 1987. “We wanted to break from the stigma of ‘Oh, there goes another crazy vet shooting somebody.’ ”
In those days, the veterans’ groups raised money for the Ronald McDonald House, Amos Cottage and other things to support patients in local hospitals. One of the organization’s most memorable fundraisers was an annual circus it brought to the fairgrounds.
And their efforts were appreciated. Peggy Latham, the chairwoman of the board of directors for the Ronald McDonald House said as much in a 1987 interview. “Back when we were doing anything we could to get money, (the Triad Vietnam Veterans) were especially supportive. They believed in our cause when few others would.”
That was the appeal to Emery when he signed on. “The Vietnam veteran was considered an outcast more than anything. It wasn’t the thing to be,” he said in 2005.
Emery followed a circuitous path to his service in Vietnam. He grew up in Bryant Pond, Maine — locally famous as the last place in America where a hand-cranked telephone was used — and joined the Air Force in 1955 to avoid work in a lumber mill.
He did four years and mustered out for a while. But the call to military service led him to enlist in the Army in 1963. He eventually became a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, where he flew a small copter on scouting missions.
As anyone who’s ever met Emery can attest, he’s nothing if not energetic. Once he decided to join the Triad Vietnam Veterans Association, he was fully committed.
Through the years, Emery and other members were equally likely to turn up at events which aimed to help pair homeless veterans with appropriate social service agencies as well as organizing parades and patriotic gatherings.
Aided by a huge nudge from Emery, the organization notably stepped in to save the annual Veterans Day Parade downtown when it very nearly came to a crashing halt in 2001. “Hey, we’re going to put on the parade, anybody have a problem with that?” he informed his fellow veterans.
Age, health issues and family interests eventually combined to take a toll on the group’s rolls the same way they’ve ganged up on other veterans’ organizations nationally.
The number of Vietnam-era veterans fell behind that of Gulf War-era vets for the first time in 2016. That year, there were some 6.8 million American veterans who served during the Vietnam era compared to 7.1 million from the Gulf War era.
Emery said that at its peak, in the ’80s, the Triad Vietnam Veterans Association had 40 to 50 active members. In recent years, at the Veterans Day parade and an annual Memorial Day service in particular, the decline in participation was felt.
In recent years, putting on the Veterans Day parade nearly turned into a one-man show. Particularly following the death in 2016 of Charlie Claybourn, a Navy man and a close friend; that’s when Emery started to shoulder more of the load.
“It was just getting harder to do things,” Emery said.
Plenty to do
This year’s Memorial Day observance, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday night at the Joel Coliseum, is expected to be a slimmed down affair.
A handful of Vietnam veterans will place small flags on each of the memorial markers on the pavilion early Monday morning before re-gathering in the late afternoon to read the 499 names of Forsyth County service members whose names were placed on those markers to honor their sacrifice.
And when it ends, Taps can be played for the Triad Vietnam Veterans Association as well.
Because he is who he is — Emery really can’t help himself — the 81-year-old former Army pilot says he plans to stay busy no matter what.
“I am kind of an instigator,” he said.
He had several bags of mulch piled up out in the front of his home near West Forsyth High School. Twelve grandchildren reaching various life milestones — graduations, marriages — will occupy more of his time, too.
“I’ve got a lot of projects,” he said. “I can’t guarantee they’ll all get done but they need to be finished.”
He’s not sure yet what he’ll do with the trailer filled with flags and mementoes used in parades and ceremonies. But he’ll figure it out. He always seems to find a way.
Emery is hopeful, too, that another local veterans’ organization — perhaps an American Legion post — will assume a leading role in the Veterans Day parade. “Those guys can get the motorcycles out, that’s for sure,” he said referring to the Legion.
Oh, and there’s one other thing he’d like the next parade organizer to know: “I’m willing to help get it up and running.”