Maricopa veterans reflect on Memorial Day

Veterans and American Legion members Bruce Boenning and Tom Weiss speak while Thomas Kelley sits in the foreground in the Veterans Center at the Maricopa Community Center on March 27, 2023. Monica D. Spencer/InMaricopa

As Maricopa residents prep their grills and enjoy a day off, Maricopa’s veterans raised a flag Monday morning outside the Maricopa Community Center to honor U.S. soldiers who died while serving in the military.  

Thomas Kelley, a Navy veteran and commander of Maricopa’s American Legion, noted the day feels especially poignant as a Vietnam War veteran. His time there was brief but intense.

“I lost 26 shipmates over there,” Kelley said. “Every time I mention their names, I get teary-eyed.” 

Kelley was drafted in 1965 and served in the Vietnam War from November 1967 to May 1968. There were two particular battles that stood out to him that resulted in that extreme loss.  

“We woke up one morning and one of our aircraft was shot down,” he said. “We lost 13 sailors that day, shipmates on February 6, 1968. And we lost another one, I think on April 1, 1968. It was also shot down.” 

Those two losses continue to leave an impression on Kelley more than a half-century later. He carries a photo with the names of his shipmates lost those two days.  

“It keeps me sane,” he said. “I miss them and some of them are still over there.” 

Bruce Boenning, an Army veteran and member of the American Legion, said Memorial Day was also a time for him to reflect on the day’s meaning.

Bruce Boenning, seated center wearing round sunglasses, poses for a photo with fellow Army infantry soldiers in an undated photo. Boenning was drafted into the Army in March 1968 and began his tour in Vietnam in September that year. Photo courtesy of Bruce Boenning.

“It makes me think of my fellow vets I served with that didn’t get to come home,” he said. 

Boenning was drafted in March 1968 and landed in Vietnam a few months later to serve in the infantry for about a year.  

His memories were a mixture of hardships and antics, of being stuck in the jungle short on rations and of young men bonding and acting silly in their downtime. But between all of that were battles and loss.  

“When we left, they said there was about 40 of us left out of 97 that were able-bodied,” Boenning said of one battle in 1969. “That was the worst.”  

Kelley, who spoke during the morning’s flag-raising ceremony said that while the day isn’t one to celebrate, taking the time to remember the meaning behind the day is still important. 

“I still think about them, about the good times,” Kelley said. “We don’t want to forget why they lost their lives.”