I first came in contact with Lisa Pett after she posted a comment to one of my blog articles about vets coming home after Vietnam. She said she was writing a school paper and needed some help about the topic. I informed her that I would post her request for help on my FB page and other veteran group pages, and that I was confident of a positive response. This is the original FB posting for help:
Hey Vietnam Vets – a little lady needs our help with her school paper! Please read her note below and respond directly to her email as she doesn’t have access to my FB accounts.
Hi john. Thanks so much for offering to help! The main problem with this situation is time. My paper is due Friday and while I already have it 90% finished, I would LOVE to revise it with feedback from your veteran friends. I realize we will receive limited response since this is last minute, but even if it doesn’t make it into my paper I would love to learn anyways. My two main questions are:
1) How were you treated by family members, friends, your community or strangers when you first found out you were to be sent to Vietnam? And how did you feel about going?
2) How were you treated by family, friends, strangers, etc when you returned home?
I am really lacking in responses about how they were treated BEFORE the war but of course am interested in their treatment after. Thank you so much for your help!
Later that same day, Lisa posted to my FB page with the following:
John, I’m the “little lady” who you are helping I wanted to let you know that in the past few hours I have 23 emails! I am so excited and emotional as I read through them. This is the most meaningful assignment I have ever been a part of and I am so grateful to you for helping me find people who are willing to share their story. Thank you to all of you who have responded!
Little did I know at the time that Lisa wasn’t a college teenager, instead, she’s the same age as my daughter, married and a mother to 4 children. She’s returned to college now that the kids are all in school and plans to finish her degree.
This morning, I received the following email from Lisa:
I have attached two things. One is my actual assignment – which is a pretty boring read since it’s a research paper – but nonetheless it is there. I have also attached a self-assigned 2nd essay which allowed me to express some of the things I could not in the research paper.I cannot thank you or the others enough for helping me. My professor was excited to read the paper and for the way the information was being given to me. And FYI, I scored a 98%… highest in the class 🙂
I was intrigued by her research paper and found it quite interesting. All the notes and references are removed and I also took the liberty of adding the pictures to compliment her work. Enjoy:
Current day welcome – most soldiers returning home as a unit after their deployment
Over the years, American war veterans have typically been received home with a hero’s welcome. They are greeted by family, friends, and townspeople and even celebrated in parades as an expression of gratitude for their service. However, for a large portion of veterans of the Vietnam War, their experiences returning home were far from this warm welcome. This paper will examine the positive and negative experiences of Vietnam veterans as they returned to their homes after completing their service. This will occur through the use of personal interviews, first hand accounts and research articles.
As the war in Vietnam escalated in the late 1960’s and through the early 1970’s, many Americans became doubtful about the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. Protests began to arise and become increasingly popular and common.
Burning draft cards in 1967
Young men of draft age would burn their draft cards in protest and preferred serving time in jail over serving time overseas. In October of 1967, over 100,000 protesters marched at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The National Guard killed four anti-war protestors at Kent University and police at Jackson State University killed two others.
The protests spread to over 350 colleges and universities. Even some soldiers in Vietnam rebelled against the war, wearing peace symbols on their uniforms, refusing orders and assaulting officers. Thousands of soldiers deserted the army. This tension over the war made the United States a difficult place to return to after the war.
Kent State Protests after four students are killed by National Guard troops
According to a study done by David Flores in the Sociological Forum, in which Vietnam veterans were interviewed about their experiences before and after the war, veterans remember feeling a sense of patriotism from their parents’ involvement in World War II. Many of them grew up hearing stories of the war and attending parades honoring veterans of World War II. They developed a feeling that America was the “best country in the world” and that Communism was a threat to the American way of living. This sense contributed to their feeling of duty to protect the country they loved. Veteran “Sam” described his experience before the war. “My general opinion was that I was very lucky to be in the best country in the world, that everybody wanted to be like us, that we knew everything, that we were the smartest, and that we were the best, and that we had the right to make everyone else like us.” Many more were inspired to follow the example of their fathers or uncles who had served in World War II.
World War II Victory Parade in New York City, 1946
Veteran Jeff Goodendorf describes his father as “my idol/mentor and friend and he had served in WWII for 4 years and I, as an only son, wanted to prove I was worthy of his name.” Similarly, Veteran Bruce Allen’s father and uncles served in World War II and felt that “if you’re American and we have a conflict, everybody ought to take their turn.” Family patriotism was only one of the reasons that soldiers felt compelled to go to Vietnam. Some were forced to go due to the draft and others, like Tex Howard, just wanted to get out on their own and “the Army seemed like a good way to do this.”
Others felt a sense of duty to serve their country. Alex, a combat veteran from Michigan, grew up in a town where nearly everyone served their country. He expected his draft notice and was prepared to go when he received it. He did not have a strong political point of view but rather was serving due to a sense of patriotism, not politics.
Regardless of the reason each soldier had for serving his country in Vietnam, a large majority of them share a similarity in their experiences returning home. According to personal interviews with 25 veterans, approximately 92% of them experienced an overall negative experience returning home from serving their country. They returned home to various parts of the country, from major cities in the East and West, to small towns in the Midwest or South. They were frequently called names such as “baby killer” or “murderer” and spit on.
Several were physically altercated, including Burnett McManus who “even had one lady tell her little boy to kick me, which he quickly did.” McManus was also denied the right to rent a car, had his camera stolen in front of a police officer who did not assist him, and was also called names. Others, such as Kevin DeCantillon, proudly wore his dress uniform to church upon arriving home and described the moment that “no one would sit next to me during the service. I had grown up in that church. A woman spit on me while I was standing on the steps of the church. No one said anything…In uniform I was invisible or derided.” The uniform worn by the soldiers seemed to have given civilians the feeling that they could treat the veterans any way they wished. Soldiers were strongly advised at the airport to remove their uniforms as quickly as possible and wear civilian clothes in public to avoid conflict. The uniform invited conflict or negative feelings and memories for some of the soldiers, such as Ron Holz. He explains, “when I returned home I was treated so badly that I let my hair grow long, hid all of my military clothing so no one would know that I was a Vietnam Veteran, and I never talked about Vietnam to anyone. I never even wore my uniform to my brother’s funeral.”
For some, the treatment was so terrible that it felt more hostile to them in the United States than it did overseas. Dan Mahoney, who had to be escorted past protestors by police, lamented that “the treatment at home, I think, did more damage than the war did.” Author and Veteran John Podlaski recalled, “What if I told you that my reoccurring nightmare isn’t about encounters with enemy soldiers on foreign soil, but of a single incident that took place right here in the United States with my own countrymen? That’s right, it’s about my homecoming after serving honorably for a year in the Vietnam War.”
For Goodendorf, the negativity spread beyond strangers to people he interacted with. He described a time in college during a course where students were asked to do an oral report on a foreign culture. He reported on Vietnam, due to his extensive experience there. He recollected, “Shortly after I started my presentation, the class started leaving, including the professor. Finally, I stood in front of an empty classroom feeling foolish and angry at the same time. I didn’t go back to that class and dropped it from my curriculum. Humiliating.” His wife at the time refused to let anyone know that he had served in Vietnam. He states that she made him “ashamed to be a Vet. She eventually threw away my ribbons and medals, my dog tags, some of my uniforms and pictures.” DeCantillon also endured verbal abuse from people he knew. “An acquaintance in my old neighborhood verbally attacked and abused me for being a ‘baby-killing war monger’. I was just 17 years-old.”
Some veterans were fortunate enough to defy the majority of experiences, and received welcoming comments from strangers. In Maryland, Tony Chliek frequently wore his uniform in order to receive discounted train rides for soldiers in uniform. People traveling on the train, usually World War II or Korean War veterans, often bought him drinks “because they appreciated my service.” Allen was only welcomed home by his family, but the reception in the Salt Lake City Airport was peaceful and he did not encounter any negativity. For Allen, the frustrating part was not the negative reactions he occasionally received elsewhere, but rather the incorrect information being used against him. For example, he heard accusations of Americans intentionally bombing hospitals, schools and temples. Contrary to that, Allen explains, “I flew over 100 missions and not once was I programmed to bomb a hospital or school.”
Soldier rescues two children that have come under fire from North Vietnamese troops during the 1968 Tet Offensive, 1968
For many, the wounds and emotions still run very deep for Vietnam veterans. Yet, the pain for some has subsided over time, due to the change in feeling and behavior towards the veterans. For Charlie Cirillo, the first welcome home came in college. “For me my first official ‘welcome home’ came in May of 1979, at my Commencement exercises from college. The college president had all us Vietnam Vets stand up and be recognized. That was a great feeling.” Some states are carrying out “welcome home” parades for the veterans, nearly 40 years since the soldiers returned home initially. Others, such as California, Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota and Wisconsin have established a day to honor or “welcome home” Vietnam veterans. Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution during the first ever Utah Vietnam Veteran’s Recognition Day ceremony on March 30, 2015, which urged citizens to “express appropriate support for Vietnam veterans, no matter the political disagreements over the war, and states a ‘heartfelt, belated welcome home’ to all Vietnam veterans.”
A parade held in Chicago, Illinois saw 200,000 veterans marching in a 3-mile long parade lined with approximately 500,000 spectators. The parade provided an opportunity for people like Loral Valley to make reparations. “Today, it’s like a catharsis. It’s a way to say I’m sorry I didn’t support them then.”
Welcome Home Vietnam Veteran Parade in Chicago, 1986. This is VVA Chapter #154 Color Guard…I am in the second row – second from the right (John)
At another parade in Delaware, veteran Paul Davis was able to receive some comfort as the crowd thanked him for his service. “The crowd was saying, ‘Thank you,’ and I get choked up even right now saying that. There was not one Vietnam veteran who didn’t have tears running down their face, including myself. It was our greatest day.”
In conclusion, there was one thing that all 25 interviewees shared in common in their responses– an expression of gratitude. Their gratitude was expressed that people would still be interested in what happened to them “after all this time.” Some mentioned that being able to talk about it brought them a small amount of relief, releasing years of frustration and hurt. The emotional injuries brought upon them by the treatment they received from fellow Americans rivaled the pain some of them felt remembering the horrors of the war. Perhaps veteran Dennis Howland stated it best that the lesson to be learned from all of this is that “Vietnam veterans are dedicated to ensuring that veterans of today’s wars do not come home receiving the same treatment. Never again.”
As a History Education Major, I was assigned to research a topic occurring in United States history after 1865. The topic could not be broad, such as “The 60’s” or “The Great Depression.” It needed to be a specific element of a period in time. Because my uncle served as a para-rescuer in the Air Force in Vietnam, I quickly decided to research something about the Vietnam War. Growing up, I never heard him talk about it, and in all fairness, I never asked about it either. All I knew was that it was a sensitive subject and I wanted to avoid causing him any pain. One thing that I did remember hearing about, however, was the way he was treated when he returned home. This became my topic.
I have been asked to publish my paper for all of you who were kind enough to help me in my research but as I wrote, I found myself frequently frustrated due to the format of the assignment. The assignment forced me to report on my research in a “scientific” kind of way; in other words, without my personal opinion or feelings brought into it. But as I read through 25 emails that streamed into my inbox, I couldn’t imagine writing about this without including my thoughts and emotions. So here comes “assignment” #2: my own assignment, which will allow me to express to you what I could not in my original paper.
Your emails brought tears to my eyes, repeatedly. Sometimes while typing your quotes into my research paper, I could not see through my tears. I am a fairly patriotic person, particularly after two recent trips to our nation’s capitol where I was able to visit the war memorials and bring my mom there to visit as well. Due to those trips, I finally chose a major to pursue. (It took me awhile-I’m a 36 year old mother of 4 who went back to school after the kids started school as well.) As I read of the horrible things people would say to you, the people that would spit on you or hit you, I couldn’t believe how often it happened. I KNEW it happened because I had heard my uncle mention it. But literally seeing email after email after email stream in with the same stories, I was saddened – both for you and for those who had been blinded or unwilling to see the truth, which was that you were young men sent into an impossible situation to do an impossible thing and left you with an impossible burden to carry.
Here is why I write to you now. Each and every one of you thanked me for my interest in the matter and I felt overwhelmed with emotion as I read that. I hope that you can see that while your own generation may not have given you the reception you deserve, your sacrifice is NOT lost on the future generations. Your story matters and should be told, so that we don’t let it happen again. Your sacrifice deserves honor and respect and while I cannot go back in time and force the nation to give it to you the way you deserved it, I can give you MY honor and MY respect now. Be at peace if only for a moment, knowing that there are people now who think of you and who are grateful to you. And that there are people now who want to tell your story in hopes of sparing our future veterans the pain you endured and endure now. The debt can never be paid but we can attempt to relieve it by carrying it with you.
With much gratitude for your help in this assignment and for your service,
This is my response to Mrs. Lisa Pett after reading both:
OMG Lisa, you did a wonderful job on both reports and in such a short period of time! I experienced chills while reading your personal thoughts – the words tugging at my heart. Some divine power had to guide you to my blog where you asked for help. The various veteran groups that I belong to are anxious to help whenever asked, so I wasn’t surprised by the feedback you received after posting your request on the various group pages…
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