Ohio town to toast forgotten Vietnam veterans

AP News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2009 4:53 PM

The floor of VFW Post 291 has been scuffed by the shoes and boots of veterans who fought in wars going back nearly a century, to World War I.

The setting is a comfort for Willis Cochran, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

But his jaw tightens and face darkens as he remembers what happened when he returned to his hometown of Bainbridge, Ga., 43 years ago.

"I was treated like trash. I tell you what hurt the worst was when the old woman spit on me," said Cochran, 62, whose blue sports jacket bore an American flag stitched on its breast. "I went from being a nice guy to ... I got to where I didn't give a damn."

Feeling guilty and pressed for time, some around the country are trying to make amends, to honor the veterans of that controversial war.

As Veterans Day approaches Nov. 11, this small, northern Ohio city is hosting a parade on Saturday exclusively to honor the Vietnam vets. Leading the procession will be a horse-drawn wagon bearing an empty, American flag-draped coffin in memory of those killed in that war.

At least two F-16 Air National Guard fighter jets will fly over and three high school bands will march down Main Street, past storefront windows painted with "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans," past Napoli Pizza, the Black Fork Bookstore and in the shadow of a towering grain elevator.

Vietnam vets have been honored in recent years with a Welcome Home parade in Las Vegas and a homecoming celebration in Indianapolis; Minnesota has designated a Vietnam Veterans Day that falls on March 29 each year.

Experts believe the warmup is being fed by the outpouring of support for current veterans that provokes a tinge of guilt and regret over how Vietnam veterans were treated _ especially with time running out to thank them now. There is also a growing belief that soldiers shouldn't be blamed for the wars.

"There is a sense of impending loss," said J. Michael Wenger, a Raleigh, N.C.-based military historian and Vietnam War author. "We see that we're losing a part of our history. It is a part of our history that there has been precious little effort to preserve."

More than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 were killed. About 5,200 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 184,000 troops are now deployed.

The war in Vietnam, an attempt to stop the spread of communism, was highly unpopular in some quarters. Protesters were alarmed by the rising number of U.S. casualties, concerned that civilians were among the victims and worried that the nation was mired in an unwinnable war that had little purpose. The war ended in 1973.

The reception given then to veterans _ from being ignored to being attacked _ is in stark contrast to what soldiers find now when they return home.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Colorado Springs and filled a stadium in Indianapolis this year to welcome veterans back from Iraq. A group of volunteers welcomes returning veterans daily at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, giving them standing ovations and buying their meals.

Veterans of more recent conflicts feel the pain of their Vietnam-era comrades.

"Every other group seems to have had their parade or their day," said Scott Hendrickson, 35, who served in Kosovo. "I personally think the American people _ everyone included _ are looking back on that and realizing they were selfish in those days.

"It's just been an injustice to thank everyone who's coming home now and not remember everyone who served."

The Shelby parade is the brainchild of mortgage banker Bill Staton, whose brother Larry Banks was wounded in action while serving in Vietnam with the Marines.

The largely agricultural city of 10,000 has been battered by the economy; a major steel-tubing employer has laid off half of its 600 workers in the past year. Yet Mayor Bill Freytag didn't hesitate to host the parade for free, offering police services for crowd and traffic control.

"It might be 40 years late, but I think it's a great idea," Freytag said.

Resident Ann Mott, 67, went shopping for a small American flag to wave at the parade, only to find the flags had sold out. She eyed the flag in the window of the real estate company where she works.

"I might have to yank that thing down and take it outside," Mott said. "It is a great honor for a small town like us."

Staton said Vietnam veterans have been thanking him, some in tears. "These guys have wounds, I think, very deep in their soul," he said.

Jim Watkins, who served in Vietnam with the Navy, said he was devastated by war protesters when he returned home and for several years wouldn't tell anyone about his Vietnam service. The 60-year-old Norwalk man said he has never received an official welcome home and plans to attend Saturday's parade.

"If I was in a hospital bed, I would have somebody wheel me there," Watkins said. "It's that important to me."