(Originally published November 2018)
The enormous hangar door slid upward as music echoed through the speakers, slowly revealing a line of veterans – guests of honor at Fort Polk’s Veterans’ Day celebration. A line of 128 Vietnam-era veterans, some in wheelchairs or assisted by canes, marched inside, in formation, Army veterans returning home to a heroes’ welcome, many decades after what was, back then, the most contested and protested of all American wars.
Hundreds of family, friends, civic leaders and fresh-faced recruits greeted the men with thunderous applause and standing ovations at the 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment hangar at Fort Polk on Nov. 8. The men stood backs-straight, even the ones who had trouble standing, and tipped their hats at the gathered audience that was there to celebrate them. Most of these men had never had this welcome that was fifty years past due. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, returning to U.S. soil from fighting in Vietnam didn’t earn a soldier a parade, but instead shouts of ‘baby killer’ or spitting or worse from many people protesting the US’s involvement in what many considered an unwinnable war.
Bill Kennedy was one such soldier who served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, with his last tour being in 1971 on Tân Mỹ island in Vietnam. Kennedy was born in Japan, a self-described ‘officer’s brat’, as his own father was in the Army right after World War II, raising his family in Japan during reconstruction after that war. As an officer’s son, then later, with his own enlistment in the Army, he laughed that he’d “literally been around the world”.
Surrounded by hundreds of people now, in celebration of his and others’ homecomings, he recalls the feeling of flying back home after his tour in Vietnam was over.
“We got our typical welcome – spit and ‘boo’, not like the guys (now) who come home,” he said. “We were chastised. It happened in the west coast when we landed at Travis AFB, and at the civilian airports when we’d catch a flight home, we’d be harassed there.”
Asked what he thought about this celebration today, he paused. “Everybody’s getting on the bandwagon, I guess you could say, to finally welcome us home. It kind of makes up for it. Back then it was a different mindset from what it is today.”
He held a pin he had just received at this day’s Veteran’s ceremony – a ‘welcome-home’ pin each veteran receives at the festivities. “I appreciate what they’re doing, I enjoy it, it’s good.”
Another honoree at the day’s events, Paul Cador, also now home in Fort Polk, served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, and his last assignment back then was as Operations Sergeant in the 90th Replacement Battalion, welcoming troops at the time to the Republic of Vietnam.
“I served for 30 years total including Germany and Japan, Europe,” he said. “I hear a lot of people talking about the protestors (then), and a lot of stories from the returning veterans…people spitting on them. Right now, I can’t find a veteran I’ve asked if they’ve been spit on or seen someone spit on.
“We as soldiers, warriors – I think If someone had attempted to spit on me…” Cador laughed. “I came back through several airports (after Vietnam) and there were protestors there, and my thought was, yes, they have a right to protest, because this is America, but they don’t have a right to spit on me and I don’t accept that.”
Although his experience returning home from Vietnam differed from Kennedy’s, he was happy with the day’s ceremonies. But like Kennedy, although he had no welcome years ago, he feels the welcome after the fact.
“We have ceremonies in Lake Charles that are outstanding, really great.” Cador said. “I feel good about my duty. I feel good about how I was treated. I served 30 years in the military… and I’m just proud of it. I’m 75 years old and content.”
Officiating the Salute to Veterans, Commander B.G. Frank took the podium and addressed the attendees.
“On behalf of the Joint Readiness in Fort Polk, welcome all. This morning, the most important event at Fort Polk is this welcome-home ceremony for the 125 heroic Vietnam Veterans sitting before us, who served our nation with distinction in combat operations across Vietnam.”
Commander Frank then cited The Warrior’s Creed, a motto that is legendary in the United States Army.
“I will always place the nation first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade,” he recited.
“For our Vietnam Veteran’s today, you are surrounded in this aviation hangar by a generation of soldiers that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest in American history – 17 years.
“When our soldiers come home, they receive a hero’s welcome….banners, flags, and our families. Our generation of soldiers here today wanted to provide you will a long overdue welcome home. Fifty years after your service in Vietnam.
“Each of you responded when duty called. May we never forget how special it is to live in a nation that has been defended by these patriotic veterans. We salute all of our veterans. Army Strong.”