More than 120 Vietnam War veterans attended a welcome home ceremony Thursday at Polk Army Airfield, Louisiana.
The ceremony was held at the 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment Hangar on Fort Polk.
“Returning soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who served in Vietnam, on behalf of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk: Welcome home,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Frank, commander of JRTC and Fort Polk, said during the ceremony, according to a base press release.
Although the ceremony was for veterans of all conflicts, the focus was on the Vietnam War veterans who were guests of honor at the event.
“For our Vietnam veterans here today, you are surrounded in the aviation hangar by a generation of soldiers that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than any generation in American history,” Frank said. “We will never leave a comrade on the battlefield, and that is why the soldiers and their families that are here today wanted to provide you with a long overdue welcome home, 50 years after your service in Vietnam."
Before the ceremony, a meet-and-greet was held for veterans and current soldiers, allowing them to share stories and experiences.
Some of the Vietnam veterans said they never received a proper welcome home ceremony when they returned from the conflict, due to the divisiveness of the war in the U.S.
“I think this is great,” Jim Anderson, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said in the base release. “When I came back from Vietnam, I had to change out of my uniform and into civilian clothes before getting on the plane to go home. People were spitting at us, yelling at us. They put us in a special section of the airport for our safety.”
Jose Blanco also served in Vietnam and faced similar issues when he returned.
“I came back through Travis Air Force Base, California, from Vietnam, and they told us it would be best for us if we changed into civilian clothes,” Blanco said. “There were a lot of protesters, so they didn’t want us to wear uniforms.”
Many of those who served in Vietnam were drafted, unlike the all-volunteer military of today.
“The Vietnam War era was a tough time for our nation, and a tough time for our soldiers in general," Fort Polk Garrison Commander Col. Jarrett Thomas II said.
“We didn’t do a good job when our Vietnam veterans returned home from a devastating war,” he added. “We’ve learned a great deal since that time. Soldiers like me, when we come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, we have people standing in the airports at 1 a.m., cheering us on and welcoming home. We learned those hard lessons from back during the Vietnam War days.”
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.