Desert Storm veterans returned home to picnics and parades. Veterans arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the years since are respected, and their service appreciated even as support for those wars has waned. Americans recognize the difference between supporting our troops and supporting war, and embrace the acts of heroism and valor these brave individuals exhibit.
But the veterans who fought in Vietnam, the first war that the American public did not reflect on with pride, were neither respected nor appreciated. They were ridiculed and spat upon, protested and vilified. Americans expressed their grief and anger by lashing out at soldiers as perpetrators of the war.
"A Vietnam vet could take being spat upon by one person. What broke our hearts was being spat upon by our country," wrote Vietnam veteran Gary C. Peters in a letter included among more than 200 excerpted in Bob Greene's book "Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam" (Putnam 1989).
They never wanted nor expected parades and celebrations. All they wanted then -- and now -- is for people to try to understand and genuinely appreciate what they sacrificed for democracy and freedom.
Post-9/11 patriotism has trickled down to Vietnam veterans. For some, it may be too little, too late. But at least now they are not afraid to identify themselves as Vietnam veterans. They wear their hats and shirts with pride and don't hesitate to show their ID cards.
Five Vietnam veterans with local ties share a small part of their experiences in hopes of enhancing that understanding.
Richard Allison knows firsthand the disparity in the receptions for Vietnam veterans compared with Desert Storm (the Gulf War, 1990-1991) and Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan, 2001-present). He is a veteran of all three wars.
Allison was a 99-pound 18-year-old right out of high school in the small town of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, when he joined the Navy in 1965. He enlisted because he had no money and no job. His stint in Vietnam was short. He came back to attend electronics school five months after being deployed in January 1966. His return home was uneventful.
But Allison knows what happened to Vietnam veterans later in the war, and understands the difference in his experience had everything to do with timing.
"I was there and back before anyone noticed," Allison explains. "The war wasn't popular, but it was not on the news every night."
Everything changed in the late 1960s. With the My Lai Massacre, the Tet Offensive and the release of portions of the Pentagon Papers, public opinion and support for the war disintegrated and protests grew across the country. Protesters didn't discriminate between the politicians making the decisions and the veterans who were just following orders -- many of them drafted into service with no recourse but to fight.
In 1991, after Allison returned from Desert Storm, one of the welcome-home parades was held in Dallas. Vietnam veterans were invited to lead the parade.
"I felt good about it," Allison says. "It was about time."
When he returned home in 2004 after six months' deployment in Enduring Freedom, his wife met him at Love Field.
"She had a small American flag that she waved back and forth," he says. "I was so moved it brought tears to my eyes."
Allison agrees that people are more appreciative of the military now.
"But the sad thing that bothers me is that a lot of people today don't understand the military issues," he says. "They don't understand the sacrifice that people in the military make."
Yet Allison is proud to be career military, serving 21 years in the Navy and five years with the Marines.
"I show my ID a lot," Allison says. "I'm proud of it. People say, 'Thank you for your service' now. Sometimes it's a little hollow, but I'm glad to hear it."
Allison lives in Leland and is an active volunteer on the Battleship North Carolina.
Retired Army Colonel Martin Beach lives in paradise now. He moved to Ewa Beach, Hawaii, after a career of military and public service that included being Pender County manager and interim town manager for Topsail Beach and Burgaw. But as a young man in Fairmont, North Carolina, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
"At the beginning of the war, I was safe from the draft," Beach says. "I was in the reserves, but just had the feeling that if the country was at war, I wanted to be part of it. I had been given a lot by this country."
Beach enlisted in 1966 in Raleigh and arrived in Vietnam in 1967. At 22, he was older than many of his counterparts there. Beach began as an artillery forward observer and worked his way up to battalion commander.
When Beach returned to the states after his tour that lasted a year and a half, he landed uneventfully at Travis Air Force Base in California. But to get out of California, he had to fly to San Francisco.
"Some idiot tried to throw a red liquid on me," Beach says. "I started to chase him ? but I went over there so people had the right to express themselves, even though I may not agree with them."
He was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, after Vietnam.
"Down South, you didn't have as much of the ugly stuff," he says. "I stayed on base primarily and had no other experience with radicals."
Beach says that he began to see a change in American attitudes toward the military in the late '80s and early '90s.
"It evolved. Mainstream America started to realize the sacrifice made by all soldiers. They began to understand that soldiers don't make war, politicians do. Soldiers carry out orders. Just like everyone else, we had a job to do and we did it."
Beach never attended any of the rallies or parades held in honor of Vietnam veterans during the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
"It was better late than never," Beach says, "but no one can make up for what happened. We didn't expect big parades when we came back, but we didn't expect to be spit on, either."
Brian Chase received his draft notice while he was still in high school. He joined the Navy Reserves' 120-day delay program, but in December of 1966 he entered the Navy. Following boot camp, helicopter gunner school, and survivor training, he was deployed to Vietnam in 1967 where he served for 13 months.
Chase was a door gunner with the Navy Seawolves, a job he describes as "unique and difficult." His Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3 flew 24-on, 24-off day after day in support of PVR boats in the small canals of the Vinh Long Province, Mekong Delta. They inserted and extracted Navy Seals. Sometimes they could land, but sometimes they could only hover. The Seawolves flew at night when no one else could fly.
Chase returned home on Election Day, Nov. 5, 1968. That day is still fresh in his mind.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Chase says. "I went from Travis Air Force Base to San Francisco. People were waiting at the airport. I got called baby killer and was spit at. It was a tumultuous time."
Even when Chase arrived home in Maine, people showed very little respect.
"I don't think even the Navy knew what to do with Vietnam veterans coming back," Chase says. "There were absolutely no post courses, no training, nothing about what we should expect."
Chase agrees that people today have more respect for the military and are saying "thank you." He believes they have a better recognition for Vietnam veterans now, but nothing like for the current military.
"They don't realize what we went through," Chase says. "Vietnam vets are just like any other human being. Show us respect, treat us like you want to be treated."
Chase went to school on the GI Bill and led an interesting and varied civilian life -- his final job before retirement, which brought him to North Carolina, was for NASCAR at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Today, he spends his spare time volunteering at the Battleship North Carolina, where he supervises the deck washing and helps with school groups. As a certified docent, he also leads weekend tours.
"I haven't met anyone yet who said anything bad about Vietnam veterans," Chase says of his time volunteering on the ship.
Slick Katz says he joined the Marines after high school for two reasons.
"I had a double-digit draft number, and I wanted to irritate my mother," he says with a smile. "She didn't want me to join the Marines."
All joking aside, everyone knew that a draft number that low meant certain deployment. An opportunity to attend aviation school offered by the Marines helped shape Katz's future military career.
But his decision to enlist didn't make the reality of Vietnam any easier. Katz deployed to Vietnam in September 1970 as a 21-year-old lance corporal, aviation electrician, UH-1E crew member/gunner. The squadron's primary mission was to provide fire support for transport helicopters inserting and extracting Marines, supplies, and the wounded; conducting search and destroy missions; and providing fire support for ground units in contact with the enemy.
After 10 months and seven days in Vietnam, Katz returned to the United States via the Los Angeles airport where a small group of protesters were shouting "baby killer" and other derogatory remarks. Initially, he was alone waiting for a connecting flight when the confrontation began.
"Then some other Marines joined me, and that ended it," he says.
Katz remembers the flight across the country being quiet. He talked to no one. But he experienced the same verbal abuse at the Boston airport until a state trooper dispersed the hecklers and walked him to the baggage claim.
His reception back home in the small town of Hull, Massachusetts, was completely different. His parents picked him up at the airport, and a fire engine escorted them into town.
Katz calls himself an anomaly compared with Vietnam veterans who went back to civilian life after their tour.
"I stayed in, so I didn't go through what a lot of the other guys went through," he says. "And I didn't have the adjustment problems they had."
Katz makes an extra effort to show respect to anyone he can identify as a Vietnam veteran.
"I always say 'welcome home' because that's one thing our generation didn't get," he says.
Katz retired from the Marines as a colonel in 2004 after 36 years of service. But he didn't stop serving. Living in Leland, he is an active member and president of the USMC/Combat Helicopter & Tiltrotor Association and volunteers about 35 hours a week with the Brunswick County Sheriff's Department.
Steve Cranford was drafted in 1967. When he entered Army basic training at Fort Bragg at age 20, he was second oldest in his platoon.
Excellent scores on a placement test led to his assignment as a radioman -- a job he neither wanted nor felt he would do well. So Cranford made a deal. For the opportunity to attend helicopter school, he signed on for an extra year, three years instead of two.
"I never regretted that decision," Cranford says.
Two weeks after he completed aviation maintenance schooling, Cranford was headed to Vietnam as a mechanic/crewmember for a Chinook helicopter unit stationed in Pleiku. When he arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, the Tet Offensive was in full gear. Cranford learned quickly that everything could change in a heartbeat. During processing, his group was told to put their orders on the table and step back. All that paperwork was swept into the trash, and they received new orders.
He was assigned to an Assault Support Helicopter unit in the First Cavalry Division, which required a week of jungle training at the First Cav's infamous "charm school" where everyone was considered 11 Bravo (infantry). Not having experienced advanced infantry training, Cranford learned then of a "grunt's" harsh environment. His appreciation for being in aviation multiplied. Thirty days later, he arrived in the Quang Tri Province area, nowhere near his original destination of Pleiku.
"I was baptized in chaos," Cranford says. "But I had it easier than a lot of guys did. We'd take guys out that I knew were going to be spending a week out there. When they came back, their uniforms were torn, and they had that thousand-mile stare. You just didn't talk to them. They had to go figure out how to process what they just went through."
The maintenance crews were assigned to flight crews, so they knew each other. Sometimes mechanics flew, too, if an extra gunner was needed.
Cranford vividly recalls a very difficult extraction in a rice paddy. One crew member had died and two were badly injured. The helicopter landed in a semi-hostile area of flat land with no cover and only a few men to guard the perimeter while they loaded up the survivors and picked up the body.
"The crew member who died had been burned, and he'd been out there for three or four days," Cranford explains. "A rice paddy by itself has a unique fragrance, so if you put that on top of it you can only imagine."
When they returned to base, he walked in, gave his report, walked over to the shower, took off all his clothes, and threw them in the trash.
"I took my shower and walked back to my tent naked," he says. "There was no way I could get that off me."
Cranford was in Vietnam for a year. He arrived at the Seattle airport at night with a group of GIs.
"We were still kinda in shock because you didn't know if you'd make it home or not," Cranford says. "It began to dawn on me that things had changed at home. We had seen the news reports. So here's this group of GIs in the airport doing nothing but smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, looking down into the ashtrays. No one made eye contact. We tried to become invisible. We could hear people talking about us in the background."
Being home was difficult.
"No place felt comfortable," he says. "We were called 'ticking time bombs' and anytime something happened, it was 'a Vietnam veteran did this' or 'a Vietnam veteran did that.' Society didn't want you around, didn't want to hire you."
For about four or five years, Cranford left his Vietnam service off his resume so he could get a job. But he had trouble keeping jobs, going through about 15 in a 10-year period. The aftermath of the war affected him every day.
"I went to a few groups but had to figure it out for myself," Cranford says. "I had a couple of buddies. We kept in touch and worked on ourselves together."
Only in the last 10 years has Cranford felt comfortable acknowledging that he is a Vietnam veteran, sharing his experience, wearing his shirt, showing his ID.
The atmosphere has changed a lot now, Cranford acknowledges. There's more recognition, but sometimes it feels hollow. He tells of a recent visit to a local store that gives discounts for veterans. He showed his ID card to take advantage of the discounts. The cashier thanked him for his service, but he could tell by the way she spoke that it was just another something she had been trained to say. It meant nothing to him.
"Service is what you get in a restaurant," Cranford says. "Sacrifice is what you have to do in the service. I always say, 'Thank you for your sacrifice.'"