Al Kirk stood at attention, saluting the stars and stripes as the national anthem was played Sunday at the Col Ballroom.
Kirk was joined by about 20 other Vietnam veterans participating in the 37th annual New Year’s Celebration of the Vietnamese Community of the Quad-Cities.
“This is the first time I’ve been to this,” said Kirk who served in the Army’s 4th Division as a sniper.
Remembering his time fighting in Vietnam, Kirk said, “It’s a beautiful place over there, except for the war.”
More than 300 people enjoyed the festivities that included numerous songs and rituals. Of particular delight to the crowd was the traditional dragon dance, with many people lining up to present their red envelope with their monetary gift inside in the hope of having good luck in the coming year.
The Col was decked out with traditional yellow and red flowers, but mostly yellow, which is traditional for the new year, said Tuyen Nguyen, one of the leaders of the local Vietnamese community.
“Almost every family has a yellow flower in their house for the new year,” he said.
This year’s dragon dance ushered in the Year of the Snake, Nguyen said. .
Nguyen, who came to the Quad-Cities in 1976 and works for Deere and Co., said he hopes that this year of the snake is better than the last.
“The last time we had the year of the snake was 2001, and you remember how horrible that year was,” he said. “It was venomous.
“This year we’re hoping the snake is a pet snake, a little water snake,” he added. “We pray for that.”
Each year during the festivities, the Vietnamese community pays tribute to the Vietnam War veterans.
“We cannot imagine what our lives would have been like, living under the communist rule,” Nguyen said.
He added that everyone who came to the United States is thankful for the opportunity to raise their children in freedom.
Nguyen said the New Year’s celebration was started because many who were new to the country were homesick and had no family or friends with whom to share the culture or their stories.
The celebration also gives the elders a chance to pass along their traditions to the younger generations.
Among the veterans in attendance was Bill Albracht, of Moline, who recently received his third Silver Star Medal for saving the lives of 150 soldiers and allies in 1969.
“It’s a very special celebration,” Albracht said, adding that he deeply appreciates the recognition America’s Vietnam War veterans are given.
DeWitt Mayor Don Thiltgen attended the event for the first time.
Thiltgen served in the Air Force and was stationed at Da Nang Air Base in 1968.
“I have no bad memories from over there,” Thiltgen said. “I’d love to go back. The people are just wonderful.”
Thiltgen spoke for many of the war’s veterans when he said his only bad memory was “the greeting I got when I got home.”