The 1960s squeaked in as a lamb but roared out as a lion with the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, a divided country formerly known as part of the Indochina peninsula that faced westward toward the South China Sea.
Under the Kennedy administration, the U.S. increased its presence in 1963 with military advisers in the small Asian county, but under President Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the presidency in November of that year following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he ramped up the number of servicemen and women to augment South Vietnamese forces in their war against the North Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh; consequently, Johnson’s escalation tore the Unites States in half as many people — especially the younger generation — began to protest America’s involvement in Southeast Asia.
When military servicemen and women returned home from fighting, protestors spat on them or taunted them, causing many to arrive in civilian clothes, not their uniforms. Thus, the Homecoming for Vietnam veterans didn’t have the same effect as the Homecomings for those who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mills Park hosted on Saturday a day to honor Vietnam veterans and the sacrifices they made more than 40 years ago.
For many, the welcome home and the thank you for their service were appreciative.
“Most active forces are from that Vietnam era,” said David Sousa, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars State in Nevada. “A day like this makes me proud to see how many people are out there.”
Life for returning Vietnam veterans though paled in comparison to the outpouring of respect at Mills Park. Sousa said with the veterans returning from Southeast Asia, many people shunned them and held a grudge for their involvement in the war.
Navy veteran Don Bemis of Dayton served as a radioman on a swift boat in Cam Rahn Bay, about 180 miles northeast of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.
Although he spent one year in Vietnam — August 1966-67 — Bemis received credit for three tours. As a young man, Bemis entered the military, proud to serve his country and wear the uniform. The country and he changed, though, when he returned home in the late 1960s.
“I loved wearing the uniform, but not when I came back,” he explained. “It hurt that the country was not behind us.”
Now, Bemis said he feels everyone has more respect for the Vietnam veterans.
“It puts a way all those bad feelings,” he added. “The new generation is also more appreciative of the Vietnam vets.”
His girlfriend Debbie Saltzman agreed. She said many young children from grade school would walk over to him and shake his hand.
Another Navy Vietnam veteran, Tom Scholl of Dayton, served one tour as a radio operator aboard the cruiser USS Providence. During his tour, Scholl remembers one mission that has been etched in his mind.
“We were in ICOR (Infantry Combat Regiment ) area near the DMZ (demilitarized zone),” he recollected. “We sailed north to Haiphong Harbor (off the coast of Northeast Vietnam) and we blasted the hell out of the harbor.”
A train line that provided the shipment of consumer goods extended from Haiphong Harbor to Hanoi.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Doug Russell served in Desert Storm before his career eventually took him to Naval Air Station Fallon. Russell flew helicopters as part of the Longhorns Search and Rescue team and then finished his career in 2008 as executive officer at NAS Fallon. Now, he flies the Raven helicopter for the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department.
Russell, who also flies a Cobra with the Cactus Air Force, said being a veteran has helped him relate to the Vietnam-era men and women.
“Hopefully, I bring back some memories for them,” said Russell, who spent 23 years in the military.
“It’s great to see the guys come out and look at the equipment,” Russell said.
Russell showed a Cobra that was similar to those flown in Vietnam. The Cobra began flying in combat in 1968, and the number of aircraft increased until the end of the war.
While the Cobra helicopter beckoned Vietnam vets, so did the Nevada Army National Guard Chinook CH-47, a troop transport helicopter that ferried troops in and out of combat zones.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brandon Dewhurst said some veterans talked about their experience on the Chinooks.
“This has been cool to hang out and show our appreciation of them,” said Dewhurst, born two years after the Vietnam War ended. Dewhurst was a CH-47 pilot in Afghanistan in 2012-2013.
“This is something cool to hang out and show them our appreciation,” Dewhurst said. “For me to show our support to these guys is a privilege and honor.”
Crewmember Staff Sgt. Justin Claman, though, said he remembers the stories his father told him about Vietnam, especially when he returned.
“My dad got a taxi because no one showed up at the airport,” Claman said.
Overall, Claman said it was nice to see the appreciation day for the Vietnam vets.
The younger generation of high school students from the Carson City Naval Sea Cadets have learned much in talking to veterans.
Gabriel Pope, a sophomore at Carson High School, said he was appalled at their treatment when they returned home.
“I learned that a lot of vets had people turn their backs on them, but when I asked them about it, they said they would do it all over again,” Pope said.
Kyle Clardy, a sophomore at Dayton High School, said many veterans told him they lost buddies in Vietnam, but persevered.
“They kept fighting,” said Clardy, whose grandfather flew B52s over Vietnam.
Both students knew the sailors and Marines had a rough ordeal in Vietnam, prompting Clardy to relate a statement a vet made to him.
“One of them,” Clardy remembered, “said it was the hardest day of his life for 13 months.”