Today’s military homecomings are grand events. They are celebrated in person and then again on videos shared on social media and the Internet. They receive positive attention on national television. Troops are greeted at airports with handshakes and, sometimes, prepaid calling cards to get in touch with loved ones.
Seemingly everywhere you go — the hardware store, the bank, the mall — there are signs thanking our veterans. In fact, “thanking the troops” is so ingrained in our culture, it’s hard to believe there ever was a time when people wouldn’t.
Vietnam-era veterans know differently. And for some, the wounds received not in combat but here at home still are fresh.
“If you returned [from Vietnam] in 1968 to 1973, when the casualties were the worst, it was difficult to avoid being called a baby killer and loser,” Chuck Knowlen, retired Army and chairman of the Maine Troop Greeters, said. “[This] caused many of the Veterans to withdraw, and many will still not talk about their service.’
Knowlen was fortunate. He returned from Vietnam before the political climate devolved to such a state that veterans literally were spat on as they came home. “I came home in 1966 and 1968 and avoided major airports,” he said.
Still, Knowlen didn’t talk about his time in Vietnam for more than 26 years. “Homecoming,” after all, is just a moment in time; the country’s feelings about the war and its veterans continued well after the service member’s first moment on U.S. soil. Even after the uniform came off, veterans felt isolated from their families, neighbors, friends and co-workers.
“What if I told you that my reoccurring nightmare isn’t about encounters with enemy soldiers on foreign soil but of a single incident that took place right here in the United States with my own countrymen?” John Podlaski writes on his blog, Cherries. “That’s right, it’s about my homecoming after serving honorably for a year in the Vietnam War.” The bus carrying Podlaski and his peers was splattered with tomatoes and eggs thrown by protesters on the street as it passed by.
In syndicated columnist Bob Greene’s book, “Homecoming: When Soldiers Returned from Vietnam,” there are dozens more stories like Podlaski’s, stories in which veterans recount being spat on, having food thrown on them, being called names and generally feeling shunned by society.
For a younger generation that was not yet alive in 1973, this is almost impossible to believe. Books like “The Spitting Image,” by sociologist Jerry Lembeke, which discounts the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans as myth, don’t help. But veterans’ emotional wounds and their reluctance to self-identify — even still today — tell all.
Knowlen is hopeful people’s attitudes toward veterans today is proof our country, or at least those who remember Vietnam, learned from the experiences of the 1970s.
“I’m convinced that the older generation feels terrible about how the Vietnam veterans were treated,” he said. “[They] do not want current veterans to feel abused. The blame for failure is not placed on the troops as much, and several states have welcome home organization like [Bangor’s The Maine Troop Greeters].”
Although encouraging, these improvements are little help to the veterans of Vietnam. “Many of the 9 million men and women who served during the years of the Vietnam war have passed,” Knowlen said. “It has been 50 years since the first major military units with an offensive mission went to Vietnam. It’s about time that they receive a thank you. Many are now ready.”
As Chairman of the Maine Troop Greeters, Knowlen and the Bangor International Airport, the City of Bangor, the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services and the Cross Insurance Center are coordinating an event on Flag Day, June 14, to do just that. All veterans who register by May 31 will be presented that day not only with a proper homecoming from a room full of those who understand but a certificate of appreciation and a special Vietnam commemorative coin as well. Family members even can participate in memory or honor of a loved one who is not able to attend or is deceased. The event already has earned sponsorships, in amounts from $99 to $4,999, from companies throughout Maine and in Florida, giving more support to Knowlen’s theory that Americans now are committed to giving these veterans the homecoming they deserve.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.