Making a difference for returning soldiers
When Chester “Chet” Edwards returned to the United States in 1969 after serving as a coxswain with the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Riverine Force on South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, he was unaware of the widespread anti-war protests. Edwards, a retired New York City public school teacher and former corporate executive, said he is still haunted by his memories of Vietnam and by his “unwelcome home.”
“Like most of those returning from Vietnam, there was no place for me to turn to move forward,” he said.
While he has long participated in veterans groups, since retiring in 2014, Edwards has had more time to devote to “righting the wrong” of that unwelcome home and assisting those who have struggled to reenter civilian life. He and his wife, Mary, who was a Vietnam War protester, live by the mantra “Hate the war, not the warrior.”
A highly decorated combat veteran, Edwards maintains a busy schedule of volunteering, attending events and speaking about his experiences. He assists with the annual Hudson Valley Honor Flight, which takes local veterans to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C. He is also vice president of his local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter and recently was appointed by Gov. Kathy Hochul to the Board of Governors of the New York State Home for Veterans at Montrose. From 2003-2017, he volunteered in the New York State Guard.
Some of Edwards’ most rewarding work is for ProVetus, a volunteer organization that helps veterans make the transition from military to civilian life as they face post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, addiction and other issues. He is a ProVetus board member.
“My whole thing is trying to give back to the veterans, to advocate as much as I can, to help them,” he said. “We have Vietnam and Korean War guys who still have not finished that transition.”
Edwards said he was not aware he had PTSD when he returned from Vietnam. “You only know what you know. I thought everything was normal the way it was,” he said. “I didn’t get involved in the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs], counseling or anything until 2003, when I got out of the corporate world, before I started teaching.”
A high school dropout, Edwards joined the Navy at age 17 after forging his mother’s signature. He earned his GED while in Vietnam and later attended college with the help of the GI Bill. Married for 50 years with two adult daughters, the Westchester County resident had a 30-year career in corporate finance before joining the New York City Teaching Fellows alternative certification program at age 54. A teacher and dean for 11 years, he retired from the now-closed Choir Academy of Harlem.
As executive director of the Westchester County Veterans Alliance, Edwards is shepherding the organization toward becoming a think tank that identifies problems related to veterans and proposes solutions. The alliance is working with state Sen. Shelley Mayer on legislation to recognize Korean War veterans’ service.
“We’re trying to put together a statewide initiative to get them a recognition day,” he said, as the 70th anniversary of that war’s end approaches in 2023. “They should have had it years ago.”