Sun Citian Jerry McNelly can remember being screamed at, ridiculed and spit upon in the Seattle/Tacoma International Airport awaiting to fly home to the Bay Area after serving in the Vietnam War.
It was 1969 and the Vietnam War – and the same harsh treatment soldiers received when they arrived back home – would last another six years.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate declared March 30 as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day,” coinciding with the date the last American service members left Vietnam to return to the U.S.
Unlike some other wars prior to and since, many Americans were bitter their government decided to get involved in the war in the first place.
Protesters took out their anger on those who served overseas, many of whom were also against what the war stood for and who were unlucky enough to be drafted.
“I talk to so many veterans who were called ‘baby killers’ and worse. One friend of mine said the flight attendants on the plane he flew back on told the soldiers and sailors to put on civilian clothes, if they had them, so as not to be spit upon,” said Vietnam veteran Ted Storck.
“They did not return to triumphant ticker-tape parades and speeches as at the end of World War I and II. Instead, these Vietnam veterans returned home to silence or worse, in some cases, denigration for having served their country during a controversial war.”
Storck and McNelly say times have changed considerably since the early- to mid-1970s as those who have served their country routinely receive rounds of applause, standing ovations, handshakes and a thank yous for protecting everyday citizens.
To commemorate the day on Wednesday, Storck said he will demonstrate his appreciation by flying his Navy flag alongside the American flag, and say thank you and welcome home to any veteran he sees wearing their Vietnam veteran baseball cap or T-shirt.
While it took many years for Storck and McNelly to feel comfortable wearing shirts and hats signifying they served in the Vietnam War, both say the media and American public have shown a greater sense of compassion and spirit to those who have risked their lives for others while serving in the Gulf War and ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It takes a community to welcome a veteran home,” McNelly said of veterans’ ability to overcome the harshness of war and attempt to lead a healthy, successful life.
Sun City resident Billee Culin, who served as Gen. William Westmorland’s secretary with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington D.C., during the Vietnam War, said she also experienced her share of ridicule for her involvement in the war.
“I hated the war,” said Culin. “We all did.”
Many veterans, including Culin, said they have found peace and are experiencing a sense of camaraderie for the first time in many years upon joining local VFW posts, where they can share experiences.
“We’re here to help each other,” she said.
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.