Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North still has fond memories of riding in the back of a pickup truck with his brothers, driving around his father’s military base with hands full of small American flags to honor soldiers on Memorial Day.
“Then we would form up and march down Main Street,” North says in a telephone interview. “And I realize it’s a different world today. It’s mattress sales, it’s car sales. But my hope is that (people) know and understand the sacrifices (of our military).”
North, a decorated marine, Vietnam veteran and former Reagan administration official, will come to Atlantic City this weekend as the keynote speaker for VetRock 2013, an all-day, outdoor festival of music, food, arts and crafts raising money for local veterans’ charities in honor of Vietnam veterans.
The event, taking place at Bader Field in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City, is designed in part to give Vietnam veterans “the welcome home you never received.”
“We would like to get between 7,500 to 10,000 people (attending),” says Michael Merlino, the founder and president of Wiser Charitable Enterprises, Inc., the organization behind VetRock. “If we can do that, we should be able to raise $50,000 to $75,000. We’re doing this without any outside sponsors.”
Bands from the Vietnam era who will be performing include Mark Farner, former lead vocalist from Grand Funk Railroad, Mytch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, The Soul Survivors, The Buckinghams and The Trammps as well as current rock acts such as Seven Stone, Gypsy Asylum, The Bob Sterling Band and the Jeremiah Hunter Band. Joe Piscopo will serve as MC and perform with his own band.
Merlino says North will receive a “hero’s welcome” on Saturday.
“During the Vietnam War, (North) was on the front lines,” says Merlino, who also hosts Veterans Matter on WPG 1450-AM.
“He’s not just a career officer that gave orders. He was up front and typifies what soldiers went through. Also, he’s aware what our soldiers went through when they came home. He’s a great marine.”
North says he plans to speak about the tradition of Memorial Day and why it is so important.
“A nation without heroes ceases to be a nation,” says North, also the host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel. “This is a tradition in our country that goes back over a century … but what we recognize on Memorial Day is self-sacrifice. I like to remind folks that a hero is not someone who wears a suit and cape, or throws a touchdown pass … a hero is a person who puts themselves at risk for the benefit of others.
“We now have on active duty over 1 million — a fraction of the number when my dad served in World War II — but, the million serving on active duty today, and many of whom have already made one deployment, need to know that we regard them as heroes as well.”
And when Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the New Jersey coastline, North says, the New Jersey National Guard played a big role at home, assisting where needed.
“They know the sacrifices,” North says.
“I want to encourage them by what I say and by my being there. It’s not just about making speeches. It’s about recognizing this service.”
Merlino says he has seen firsthand that Vietnam veterans are always among the first to welcome home the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is time, he says, that they too receive a proper “thank you.”
“I’m an American Legion rider, so I go on all kinds of rides, and the people out front on all these are Vietnam veterans,” Merlino says. “So it’s time to welcome them home.”