Shunned decades ago, Vietnam vets are honored and thanked
At the front of a room filled with Vietnam veterans, a blue banner offered this message Tuesday: "A grateful nation thanks and honors you."
Bill Rowley, wearing his Army 1st Calvary Division cap, remembered people glaring at him as he walked through a San Francisco airport on his way back from the Vietnam War in 1970.
Nobody spat at him. But the anger was tangible. It made him feel like a target.
"What I wanted to do was get out of my uniform as fast as I could," he said, explaining his reaction to the banner displayed Tuesday at the Ventura Vet Center on a day proclaimed Vietnam Veterans Day.
"I appreciate it greatly. It does mean something," said the retired middle school teacher from Camarillo. "I just wished it would have happened 45 years ago."
Dozens of Vietnam veterans — one in a red, white and blue shirt, another in a floppy camouflage hat — ate lasagna, listened to war poems and spoke of mortars at a center where many of them receive post-traumatic stress counseling.
They came for a day attached to a nationwide commemoration of their service.
For many organizers, a goal is to make amends for the name-calling, protests and rage that greeted the veterans when they came home decades ago.
Efforts continued Wednesday, which was proclaimed Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day by state and Ventura County officials.
Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long's brother, Michael A. Martin, served in Vietnam, flying helicopters for the Army through clouds of Agent Orange. He died from complications of the exposure in 2009.
Long was in high school during the war and remembers her brother's anger at being shunned when he came back from the war.
"We should never, ever repeat what happened with the Vietnam vets," she said.
Lewis Boyd, a Texan who now lives near Port Hueneme, served with the Army in the Mekong Delta. He was in the country for six months and 20 days before being rushed out in a medical evacuation.
"Either I got too close to a mortar or it got too close to me," he said.
Coming home was hard. He fought with everyone, triggering short stints in jail and then a behavioral institution. It was PTSD, but no one knew it.
Four decades later, he's still dealing with the disorder, but now he gets treatment for it.
"I wake up swinging every night," he said. "Everyone knows you don't walk into my room when I'm sleeping."
Boyd isn't sure Vietnam was that different from other wars.
Venice Honick contends every war is different.
Honick leads the Vet Center, which is part of a national program attached to the Department of Veterans Affairs and created in 1979 for Vietnam vets struggling with civilian life. The Ventura center now offers counseling and services for combat veterans from all conflicts.
Vietnam was unique because people were forced by a draft to fight in the war and then were rejected when they returned home.
"It's almost like a betrayal," she said, explaining that the effects of the rejection and the trauma of combat are lasting.
"I think a lot of people don't get that PTSD is chronic," Honick said. "They make comments like, 'Get over it.' It just goes to show they don't understand."
U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, spoke at Tuesday's event. But most of the people there were veterans who receive services from the center.
Forrest Frields entered Vietnam as a second lieutenant and left after two Army tours as a captain. He flew helicopters, scouting out locations for air and artillery strikes aimed at destroying North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.
"There were nine times when, for all reason, I should have been killed," said Frields, who received honors that included two distinguished flying crosses, an air medal for valor and a purple heart.
The eyes of the retired photographer from Camarillo teared up as he told stories of the war and its aftereffects. He paused when asked if the war has stayed with him.
"Oh, my God," he said, "it is me."
Tom Kisken is a health care and general assignment reporter.