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Saluting Vietnam Vets

The names and faces of brave men and women who have served our country line the walls of Kauai Veterans Center (KVC). You can’t help but swell with pride and gratitude for all of those who risked their lives.

With Veterans Day right around the corner on Nov. 11, it’s a fitting sentiment and one that representatives of the center wish to perpetuate, especially during this year’s Kauai Veterans Day Ho‘olaulea and Parade. The commemorative march is set for Nov. 7, starting at 10 a.m. at Vidinha Stadium and proceeding to Historic Kauai County Building in Lihue.

This year’s theme will honor Vietnam War veterans.

“Giving them a homecoming they never had,” says Aida Cruz, site manager and event coordinator for KVC.

The day’s festivities, which include food, crafts and entertainment until 2 p.m., will hold a special place in Cruz’s heart: Her late husband Frank was a U.S. Army veteran of the war who died in 2007 from his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“I’m very proud, not only of him, but of everyone else as well, to make us have this freedom to live the way we’re doing at the moment,” she says.

Before his death, Frank Cruz served the community in various roles, including commander of Kauai Veterans Council, chairman of VA Advisory Board and member of Military Order of the Purple Heart and Disabled American Veterans — he was shot during the war and still had a bullet in his leg the day he died. His wife continues to carry on his legacy through her work at KVC, which is a gathering place for the local military community and veterans’ organizations.

While Cruz of course is aware of her late husband’s work in the community, his war stories were few and far between. Veterans of that day and age rarely shared tales except with comrades in arms.

“They will not share it with you unless you were there with them. It is difficult for them to talk about it,” says Cruz.

It was during his eulogy when she discovered that he was a “tunnel rat” (a soldier who sought enemies underground) and a sniper, duties that require extreme bravery. She hopes those who visit KVC , including its museum with a plethora of war relics and memorabilia, will appreciate seeing the many bold men and women like her husband who have served in the military.

“I want the community that comes in here to see who’s here,” she says.

“Our main goal at KVC is to make sure this center is sustainable and is kept for our future veterans.”

Prior to inheriting her position at KVC eight years ago, Cruz worked in the financial industry with jobs such as assistant branch manager at Bank of America. She is particularly proud, however, of her current duties.

“I was honored to be asked to take the job,” says Cruz, a Waimea High School graduate and mother of three: Frank Jr., Crystal and Ariel.

She believes in the mission so much that she volunteers her time for projects like the Veterans Day Parade. Others, including Charlene Dorsey, join her in her mission to honor veterans.

“I’ve volunteered since I was a kid — my mother believed in it. It gives me pleasure to come out here, and I’m with comrades,” says Dorsey, who volunteers as a tour guide at the museum.

“I’m a history buff and I learn a lot.”

Dorsey, a Vietnam veteran, was an illustrator and draftswoman for the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. “You’d be surprised what people get out of the museum,” she adds. “I get tears. I get joy.”

Visitors to the museum often will recognize faces in photos and have stories of their own.

“So not only do I give to them, they give to me,” says the Chicago native.

Dorsey also is responsible for choosing this year’s Miss Veteran, a scholarship program for a graduating high school senior who will serve as ambassador for KVC. Miss Veteran 2015-2016 will be crowned and administered into her oath of office at the next Veterans Council meeting and will make her debut in the Veterans Day Parade, for which Vietnam veteran Harry Shigekane will serve as grand marshal.

For more information about the Kauai Veterans Day Ho‘olaulea and Parade or KVC, visit kauaiveteranscenter.com.

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