It’s been 48 1/2 years since I came home from serving as a medic in the Vietnam War. That’s a long time ago. But it didn’t make it any easier to watch the first night of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” on PBS last night. My guess is that many of you watched it too.
Like almost all of the other Vietnam vets I’ve gotten to know through the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Knoxville chapter, I never talked about the war. Until two years ago, I had never attended the Veterans Day parade downtown, even though the windows of my office on Gay Street looked out onto the parade for many years. I never looked out.
I still don’t know why, but two years ago I ordered a Vietnam veteran’s cap and decided to wear it to the parade. I found a place in the front of the crowd. It moved me that people would stop me and say “thank you for your service.” It meant something when motorcycle riders in the parade stopped their bikes in front of me just to shake my hand.
I know I’m not alone in these feelings. All of us ‘nam vets have waited almost 50 years to hear those words. But, until recently, they never came. Part of that is because we never talked about the war. The reception we got when we came home, or the lack thereof, made us want to just disappear back into real life. We didn’t cause the war, but most of us certainly felt that we had. What we did was the jobs our country asked us to do. We did them proudly and to the very best of our abilities. Except for our families, no one ever said “welcome home” when most of us came back from the war. My most vivid memory of coming back to the U.S. was hippies spitting on me as I walked through the San Francisco airport. Our local VVA chapter members Bob Hampstead, Snapper Morgan and Joe Spencer were part of the locally-made segment of last night’s PBS broadcast. Their experiences represent a lot of us.
But it’s time. There are more than 35,000 Vietnam veterans in the Knoxville area. There’s a good chance when you meet a man in his mid-late 60s to mid-70s, he might be a Vietnam veteran. Only one percent of our area veterans are members of our Captain Robinson chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. It’s an organization that will wrap its arms around every one of the 35,000 and tell them “welcome home.”
As you watch Burns’ film this week, we the Vietnam vets would like for you to help us invite every ‘nam vet you meet to come join us. You won’t regret it. I know that the veterans who come won’t regret joining us. VVA chapter 1078 can be reached at 865-321-1435. Or send an email to our president Don Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Saturday, Sept. 23, at Chilhowee Park, 3301 East Magnolia Ave. from 11:30-1:30, VVA chapter 1078 is throwing a picnic and outdoor party for all of our veterans, without regard to their time of service. Please invite all veterans you know to come join us.