MANASSAS, Va. >> Charles Howell, a Vietnam War veteran, wore his camouflage Army jacket and jungle hat in public for the first time in more than 40 years recently, when he attended the Veterans Day parade in this Civil War battleground city. He said he no longer cared about possible negative reactions to his military service.
A fellow veteran extended his hand and said, “Welcome home.”
“It feels good,” Howell said. “It is time to get a little recognition.”
Recognition for Vietnam veterans, many of whom feel scarred by experiences during that contentious period in American history, has been growing.
Communities in California, Delaware, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin, among others, have held parades and special events in the past year. More than 20,000 people attended a May ceremony at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
Several states have established a day to honor or “welcome home” Vietnam veterans. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota and Wisconsin have passed laws since 2008. Other state legislatures are considering similar bills, while governors and local municipalities have issued proclamations.
The recent outpouring of support, veterans and others said, stems in part from the public embrace of troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of today’s troops return to heroes’ welcomes, often captured by local news media.
“They’re shown coming off the plane to family and friends,” said Karen Lazar of Harrington, Del. “You see it all the time. They see this, too. These Vietnam vets had no one.” Lazar spent a year organizing a parade and reaching out to veterans in Delaware, who in turn reached out to others. The parade was held in May in Harrington.
The experience left an impression of Paul Davis, who served two tours in Vietnam with the Army. Davis was among 150 veterans who participated.
“The crowd was saying, ‘Thank you,’ and I get choked up even right now saying that,” said Davis, president of the Delaware chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “There was not one Vietnam veteran who didn’t have tears running down their face, including myself. It was our greatest day.”
More than 1,500 Vietnam veterans showed up at Fort Campbell, Ky., for an event in August 2009. They hold similar events for current troops. “Our Vietnam vets did not receive this kind of welcome home,” Maj. Patrick Seiber of the Army, who helped organize the event, wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan where he is deployed.
So many veterans showed up that they held three ceremonies, in a hangar, just as they do for current troops.
Connecticut’s law mandates “welcome home” ceremonies at the Capitol each March 30, a date representing the day in 1973 that the last American combat troops left Vietnam.The federal holiday for all veterans is Thursday.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut signed the bill in May and lamented at the time that some veterans were “insulted or abused” when they came home. Rell said there was now more respect: “I see it in the send-off ceremonies, homecomings and everyday interactions between our military and civilians.”
But disagreement persists. The American Legion of Ohio opposed legislation to create a special day for Vietnam veterans, saying Veterans Day and Memorial Day are sufficient. Peter Karsten, who teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh and edited the Encyclopedia of War and American Society, said he rejected the notion that the veterans were mistreated. It was “a myth,” he said, traced to the Nixon White House as a way to discredit war opponents.
“It’s a slander on the American public to believe that soldiers were disrespected,” he said.
Karsten, a Navy veteran of the early 1960s, said part of the surge in support for Vietnam veterans was mortality. They are older now, he said, and have more political power today.
Back in Manassas, which held its Veterans Day parade on Saturday, Howell, 64, said he was envious of today’s homecomings.
“I’m jealous but they deserve it,” said Howell, who retired from a local telephone company. “I’m beginning to let some of it go, but it’s hard.”