By Alex Lippa
---- — Welcome home.
Many Vietnam War veterans have waited decades to hear those two words.
They wanted to hear them when they returned from overseas some 40 years ago. Instead, many veterans said, they were treated rudely and often felt ashamed to have served their country.
That’s starting to change, however belated the gratitude might be.
Tomorrow, the state will officially recognize and thank Vietnam War veterans in Concord. The event comes a year after March 30 was recognized as Vietnam Veterans Day by the state Legislature.
“It’s about time,” said Lance Reynolds, 67, of Salem, who served as a petty officer in the Navy from 1965 to 1969. “They’re finally starting to make up for it.”
Mike Horn, director of the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, is a driving force behind the event. The cemetery already hosts celebrations on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Yesterday, Horn said he thought it was appropriate to specifically honor the approximately 44,000 Vietnam veterans living in New Hampshire, most now in their 60s and 70s.
”This opportunity presented itself to us,” Horn said. “So we decided to make Vietnam veterans a focal point.”
March 30 marks the anniversary of the day that the U.S. officially withdrew all of its troops.
Originally, the ceremony was going to be held at the cemetery. But the response was so great, it was moved to the N.H. Army Guard Aviation Flight Facility.
”We expect between 800 to 1,000 people to be there,” Horn said. “This really became a lot bigger than we thought.”
That may be because of the cool, sometimes cruel, reception those soldiers received so many years ago.
Some Vietnam veterans recalled the lavish parades and celebrations held for World War II veterans. They said they were expecting the same, but instead were disheartened by the public’s response to their service.
“No one said welcome home to me other than my family,” said Richard Holmes, 67, of Derry, who was an Army medic from 1969 to 1970. “We were ignored and forgotten.”
For others, being ignored was the least of it.
“People were calling us names,” said Al Raymond, 65, of Salem. “They were jeering us and it really hurt us. It got to the point where we didn’t want people to know we were Vietnam veterans.”
But in the past several years, some local veterans said, they have started to notice a change.
“When I go into Home Depot, I present my veteran identification,” said John DiBona, 71, of Hampstead, who served as a sergeant in the Air Force for 20 years. “Every time, the cashier thanks me for my service.”
Reynolds said he finally felt accepted about 20 years ago, when he finally was invited to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization.
Many Vietnam veterans across the country reported feeling unwelcome at their local VFW posts.
“For the longest time, they refused to recognize us,” he said. “Then, one day, a commander at the VFW knocked on my door and said you’re welcome now.”
Local veterans said they believe there are several reasons for the recent change in attitude.
“The last two wars we have had changed people’s perception of us,” DiBona said. “People were doing the same things we were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
But Holmes said the change is just a function of time.
“The world goes on,” he said. “People became more patriotic than they were in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.”
Raymond said today’s soldiers have unknowingly had an impact on the legacy of soldiers of year’s past.
“(Today’s soldiers) do it voluntarily now,” he said. “The amount of tours our people are doing are just awesome. In return, people are giving them the support they deserve, which we didn’t get at the time. As a result, I think people start to remember us as well.”
Veterans said although they haven’t gotten the support they believe they deserve from the public over the years, it’s the support from each other that matters most.
“Those are our brothers,” Reynolds said. “Everyone else doesn’t have an idea what we went through. We relate to each other.”
The ceremony is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday on Regional Drive in Concord. Gov. Maggie Hassan and the state’s congressional delegation are expected to attend.