Vietnam veteran awarded service medals decades later

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — March 29 is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. According to the national archives, there were more than 58,000 U.S. military fatalities in the war.

Those who did return home weren’t welcomed back. In this week’s Veterans Voices, James Spires was just recognized for his service in the war.

“The government took most of my life away but God gave it back to me,” Navy Veteran James Spires said.

At just 17 years old, Spires enlisted into the Navy as the Vietnam War was raging on.

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“I actually did not serve on the land but I was within the shore area sometimes on gun lines sometimes on Blaine guard.”

He was trained as a sonar technician but ended up volunteering to work with 50-caliber machine guns and the 81-MM mortar on the ship.

“You would fire the rounds up into the air and it would release tinfoil and so by way of maneuvering the ship and knowing where the tin foil was then you could maneuver away and hopefully the rocket would attract the tin foil versus the ship,” Spires said. “There was two of us- one would hand me the mortars and I’d drop ’em and you know it’s a pretty big responsibility for a 19-year-old, 20-year-old to have.”

It’s been almost 56 years since he came home but Spires still deals with the health impacts of Agent Orange, the herbicide used to kill the thick jungles.

“They would spray this herbicide and within 15 minutes, the leaves on the trees would start falling off,” he said.

His brother passed away from the effects of it in 2011.

“When it hit the water, it created a concentration of this so as we drank our water, our food was made from it and showered from it so we were getting bathed and ingesting this agent orange compound.”

The Vietnam War was highly controversial, especially for those back home.

“We got called a lot of names. I never got spit on like what you read but if you were in uniform, people didn’t speak to you,” Spires said.

But decades later, Spires hadn’t gotten the recognition he deserved from the Navy.

“I didn’t get my Vietnam service medals or my good conduct medal because they kept saying I didn’t qualify and I’d print out where it says I do qualify,” he said.

So, after eight years of trying on his own, he reached out to U.S. Congresswoman, Diana Harshbarger (R-TN01) for help.

“We want to recognize them before they’re gone,” she said. “You get one-time replacement of medals say if you’ve moved and you’ve lost them or maybe a parent is deceased and the children want it, you can request those medals to be mailed and we can do that.”

Harshbarger and her staff reached out to the Records Analysis Branch which reviewed the case. It determined that Spires did earn the Navy Good Conduct, National Defense Service and Vietnam Service Medals.

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“You served and you got recognized, well, let’s give you the medal to show other generations that ‘this is why I served and this is what I got when I served,'” Harshbarger said. “It’s just a symbol of fighting for our country, being on the front lines and preserving freedoms for us. You reach out to the branch, they will signify to us and they’ll give us the certificate of release to let that military service officer know that they’ve got that, they’re coming and they’ll send them to us.”

Spires intends to pass them on to his children and grandchildren after he enjoys them first.

“It’s something that I think that my country owed me,” Spires said. “I did my thing and I did my job well and to finally get them, it meant something to me.”

If you need help receiving a medal or other item from the military, you can reach out to Congresswoman Harshbarger’s office, and a Veterans Case Worker can assist you.

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