Some Vietnam Vets Get Their Due
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now to a different sort of veterans gathering. When service members returned from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, they're often greeted by a military band and a speech from a general. It's a striking contrast to the Vietnam War. Soldiers traveled home by themselves on commercial jets and Greyhound buses. And they were often greeted with anger about the war. Well, last night at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, military officials tried to make up for the lack of fanfare back then. As Blake Farmer reports from member station WPLN, they invited Vietnam vets to a welcome home ceremony.
BLAKE FARMER: Nearly 3 million Americans served in Vietnam and for some, the only greeting as they walked off the airplane was from angry war protesters -until now.
(Soundbite of motorbike)
FARMER: Hundreds of veterans caravanned onto Fort Campbell on Harley-Davidsons; the rest stepped off charter buses onto the Fort Campbell airfield. Fourteen hundred participants traveled from Oregon, Florida and Michigan.
Mr. JOHN COLOGNE (War Veteran): I'm John Cologne.
FARMER: After being drafted, Cologne quickly found himself in a firefight where half the men in his platoon died. After being shot five times himself, Cologne's comrades thought he was dead too - at least dead enough to put him in a body bag.
Mr. COLOGNE: I was already told dead. They had sent the paperwork through. What it was, I was lying on a pile of bodies in the morgue. They had us stacked like kindling wood, I guess, and I rolled off the pile. And they put me back on the pile, and I rolled off again.
FARMER: Cologne later spent 21 months in an Army hospital. And he says he was lucky - lucky he wasn't tossed into the hostility that awaited other discharged service members.
Mr. COLOGNE: A lot of my friends who I served with were in Vietnam one day and three days later, they were home and thrown out. And they seemed to be the ones who were the most screwed up.
Mr. LARRY HAMM (War Veteran): It was a shock going to Vietnam, and it was more of a shock when we came home.
FARMER: Larry Hamm from West Chester, Pennsylvania, recalls angry crowds lining the airport fence, throwing rotten eggs. Hamm was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, among other ailments. As he props himself up on a wooden cane, Hamm says it was big deal for him to fly down.
Mr. HAMM: This isn't a little side show. I'm here because my VA doctors have told me, go. Bury some of your ghosts. Do something. You're going to be part of something again, instead of the loner that nobody, you know, goes near or anything like that.
Unidentified Man: If everyone will come to the hangar, we're about to close the hangar doors. Thank you.
FARMER: The Goliath-size doors slide shut as the veterans assemble outside into sloppy formation, wheelchair-bound members in front.
(Soundbite of music)
GONYEA: Inside the steamy hangar, a six-piece brass band knows the drill. Sergeant Jeremy Powell puts down his tuba long enough to explain this ceremony has become a near-daily occurrence as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sergeant JEREMY POWELL (U.S. Army): We've had two or three of these a day sometimes, sometimes at 2 o'clock in the morning. So we basically live here for about three or four months.
(Soundbite of cheering)
FARMER: And then the doors push open as flags wave and cameras flash. As is typical of these ceremonies, the commanding general speaks. Major General John Campbell:
Major General JOHN CAMPBELL (U.S. Army): And we wanted to make certain that not another day goes by where you go without proper welcome home and job well done.
(Soundbite of cheering)
FARMER: At the conclusion, those in formation share extended embraces. Arnett Bodenhaver(ph) of Nashville says he's watched soldiers from the war on terror come home to this parade-like atmosphere with mixed emotions.
Mr. ARNETT BODENHAVER (War Veteran): I had little resentment, a little jealousy, because I never got what they got.
FARMER: The former command sergeant major says marching into the raucous hangar brings some closure. John Sales was one of the few Marines in attendance, so the event wasn't a reunion for him. A Purple Heart is pinned over the breast pocket of his old uniform. Mirrored sunglasses, though, can't hide the emotion on this retired postal worker's face.
Mr. JOHN SALES (War Veteran): I mean, I march in the Veterans Day parade every year, but this right here was something special. This right here really brought tears to my eyes that I have never experienced before.
FARMER: But this overdue welcome came too late for some veterans. One retired military policeman said several comrades who passed away would have given anything to be here.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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