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Vietnam vets among those honored at Clarkson University

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POTSDAM — The singing of “God Bless America” by a group of Vietnam War veterans and their supporters Saturday at Clarkson University started as a low murmur and crescendoed into a boisterous, heartfelt rendition of the patriotic anthem.

The song was a part of ceremonies at Clarkson’s third annual Veterans Appreciation Day at Cheel Arena, which this year paid special homage to those who served in the military during the Vietnam War era from approximately 1960 to 1975.

Neil A. Conant, Potsdam, an Army artilleryman who saw duty in Chu Lai, Vietnam, in 1970, was one of dozens of veterans and others who attended. A slender, softspoken 70-year-old with short-cropped gray hair, Mr. Conant recalled his first night in Vietnam as a young soldier, guarding his unit’s perimeter. It was dark. He was alone — and very afraid, he said.

“I don’t think I ever slept the whole time I was there,” Mr. Conant said.

Nearly 45 years later, he described Saturday’s Veterans Appreciation Day at Clarkson as a moving experience, and a recognition that has been a long time coming for many of his generation.

“It’s long overdue. It brings tears to my eyes,” Mr. Conant said.

Sitting next to him was Timothy J. O’Brien, Stockholm, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. 7th Marines from 1965 to 1966. He and Mr. Conant both recalled coming home from the war to crowds of protesters taunting the soldiers with insults. Some returning veterans, he said, were spit on when leaving the airport.

“I remember thinking I’m glad they took our weapons away from us before we got off the plane,” Mr. O’Brien said. “ We were doing a job we were asked to do, just like these kids today.”

Saturday’s event began at noon, and in addition to opening ceremonies and guest speakers, featured tables and booths set up to provide information on services available to former military members from all eras, including the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jeff J. Cleland, 27, a twice-wounded Iraqi war veteran who served as a machine-gunner with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah, was handing out literature about the organization he now works for called Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango.

Mr. Cleland, a native of Camillus, said that after leaving the Marines he tried going back to college but dropped out twice because he had difficulty focusing on the classes.

He said he has since found his work with Clear Path for Veterans, a nonprofit organization that offers a wide range of help to veterans and their families, to be both rewarding and challenging.

“They hired me because I am a combat veteran, and it is easier for me to talk to some of the veterans. I can relate to them,” Mr. Cleland said.

Mr. Cleland said despite the age difference between him and most of the veterans at Clarkson’s Veterans Appreciation Day, there is still a strong camaraderie that exists among military men and women of all generations. He said a large number of the veterans his organization helps today proudly wore their U.S. military uniforms decades ago.

“A lot of the veterans that we help are from the Vietnam era because they never had the services before,” Mr. Cleland said.

Saturday’s veterans ceremony was also an opportunity for Clarkson President Anthony G. Collins to announce a new initiative aimed at helping veterans prepare for civilian careers after leaving the military.

Mr. Collins said Clarkson is signing on to the “8 Keys to Veterans’ Success” program, a voluntary initiative of the U.S. Department of Education.

The program provides concrete steps that postsecondary institutions can take to assist service members and those who have served in the armed forces in transitioning to higher education, completing their academic studies and obtaining skills for the workforce, according to Mr. Collins.

“Through our commitment to the ‘8 Keys to Veterans’ Success,’ as well as other programs, it is our honor and opportunity to show our gratitude to the men and women who ensure our freedoms and liberties every day,” Mr. Collins said. “Clarkson offers a great educational experience for individuals who have demonstrated the values of diligence toward work and service to others.”

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