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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 11/11/15. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to patriots and officials during a flag raising ceremony in the Bluff View River Gallery Sculpture Garden in honor of Veterans Day on Wednesday, November 11, 2015. Five flags will be permanently flown on Veteran's Bridge in honor of the military personnel lost earlier this year.

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Ceremony honors Vietnam vets on war's 50th anniversary

Officially, the battle at Landing Zone X-ray ended in November 1965, but Jesse "Bud" Alley and 350 other servicemen remained in the dark Vietnamese jungle.

No helicopter came to their immediate rescue. They walked 7 miles with no sleep or water before Vietnamese ambushed them, slicing American soldiers to pieces. Some 155 of them lay dead on the jungle floor; another 134 wounded. It was one of the worst casualties of the Vietnam War suffered by one unit in one day in the la Drang Valley.

"It wasn't a place to be," Alley said.

Then things got worse when help finally arrived.

"Our own artillery started to come in on top of us," Alley continued.

The Vietnam veteran and author spoke to hundreds of veterans, students and supporters attending the Veterans Day ceremony Wednesday at Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Red Bank and Central high school ROTC students distributed gold lapel pins to Vietnam veterans to honor them in recognition of the Vietnam War's 50th anniversary.

A woman identifying herself only as a patriot walked through the crowd carrying a sign that said "welcome home" to the veterans. Some veterans wept when they saw it.

Alley is author of the book "The Ghosts of the Green Grass," where he gives a first-person account of his war experience in Vietnam.

"So you ask, 'What does Veterans Day mean?' To most of us citizens, it means we stop one day a year to remember and thank the living. But what does it mean to us, the Vietnam veteran?" he asked. "It means we remember every day. Every damn day we remember the faces, the names. We did not forget. We will never forget."

Vietnam veteran Donald Oakley looked for the names of deceased friends on the Tennessee Vietnam Memorial Wall and the Georgia Vietnam Veterans Plaque temporarily on display at the cemetery. He spoke through tears to express his appreciation for the ceremony.

"It was a very unpopular war. There was no real homecoming," he said. "And it's nice to be recognized by the American people."

Horace Hatcher, another Vietnam veteran, cried throughout the event.

His wife, Reba, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but has worked tirelessly to assist other veterans.

Alley also addressed the needs of other veterans.

"We still have to fight for our due. We still have problems with the government who ignores our claims," he said. "We still have trouble getting studied for Agent Orange that's harming our grandchildren. Our nation is spending billions to go to war, and yet we skimp when it's time to care for the returning warrior."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., recognized the five servicemen fatally shot in Chattanooga in July: among Marines, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist and Lance Cpl. (Skip) Wells; and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.

He commended Vietnam veterans.

"The men and women coming back today from Afghanistan. You know the group that has helped them the most are Vietnam veterans," Fleischmann said. "The group that our country did not honor the way they should have been honored. That group stood up and has done the best job ever helping (other veterans)."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or call 757-6431.

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