DECATUR — Forty years after the last American combat troops left Vietnam, the first welcome home ceremony was held for Vietnam veterans in Decatur.
Men and women who endured the hardships of the most divisive conflict since the Civil War gathered together to share memories, meet new friends and listen to speakers who honored them and their fallen comrades.
“On behalf of the citizens of Macon County, we very joyously welcome you home and call you the heroes that you are,” former Decatur police chief Mark Barthelemy told the 200 people who attended the event Saturday afternoon at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel.
When Harold Stein was sent to Vietnam, he carried with him a tremendous amount of experience. He had already fought in World War II and the Korean War. During his tour of duty in Vietnam, 1969 to 1970, he served as a combat base defense commander with the 101st Airborne Division.
Stein, 88, a New York City native who retired from the Army in Decatur in 1976, said he felt that he was welcomed back from his first two wars, but “there was no welcome” home from Vietnam.
Although Stein said he could not hear much of what was said in the speeches Saturday, he still enjoyed the day.
Stein was singled out for an ovation after a speaker told a story about meeting a man at a gas station who had fought in all three wars, with 37 years in the Army. Stein, who served almost 33 years, then stood up at his table, apparently at the urging of other veterans.
Army veteran Jerry Wagoner added to Stein’s enjoyment, when he thanked him for his lengthy service to our nation.
Wagoner, who served a tour as a military police officer in Vietnam 1967 to 1968, recalled that he received a nasty welcome home when he arrived in Oakland, Calif.
As he was waiting for his sister to pick him up in a newly issued uniform, some long-haired young people called him names, including “baby-killer,” he said. He restrained himself from retaliating, but was ready for combat if any of them touched him, which they wisely refrained from doing.
“It was just a bad time all the way around,” Wagoner recalled.
Wagoner, who served 27 years on the Decatur Police Department after his Army stint, said he believes warm welcomes for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have spilled over to include better feelings toward veterans of his era.
“I’ve had more people in the last two years welcome me home than the past 40 years,” Wagoner said. “I think it’s a long time coming. When we got back, nobody wanted to do anything and everyone wanted to forget about it.”
Toward the end of the event, a double-axe insignia on a hat brought Wagoner together with Don Sullivan, who discovered that they both served in the same military police unit in Vietnam, but at different times.
“I was in the last combat infantry unit,” Sullivan said. “Our supply train was cut off. I came home in August ’72.”
Sullivan, a Decatur native who resides in Iowa, attended at the urging of his friend, Navy veteran Bruce Stephens, the event’s main organizer.
George Frank, also a friend of Sullivan’s and a fellow MacArthur High School graduate, served with the Army’s 264th Transportation Company in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971. He recalled that he was involved in the invasion of Laos, but then remembered it was a secret invasion and joked about it not ever happening.
Frank, Sullivan and Wagoner all agreed on the subject of the nurses who served in Vietnam.
“They’re the best people in the world,” Frank said, adding that they underwent more traumatic experiences than most other veterans. Many service members died in their arms, crying out for their mothers and girlfriends. “They’re sweethearts.”
Stephens, who put a tremendous effort into organizing this event, along with sponsors and volunteers he recruited asked the veterans if they would like to have another event. His question was greeted with enthusiastic applause.