As I look back at my military service, there are two periods that I am most proud of — serving in Louisiana covering the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, and a period in 2004 and 2005 when our South Dakota Guardsmen were deploying and returning home at a furious rate.
Entire towns shut down during that time so residents could attend the activation and welcome home ceremonies. Hundreds and even thousands of people lined the streets waving flags and displaying homemade signs in both the sendoff and welcome home parades.
I can’t count how many times I heard soldiers saying that they didn’t want a parade as they merely wanted to focus on their pending deployment, but in nearly all cases, after the fact, they said they were amazed by the support and were beyond grateful for the sendoffs.
You see, our citizens love their soldiers. They are, after all, our brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives. They are our children, our friends, and our neighbors.
But the overwhelming support shown to our service members today was not always the case.
Following the massive parades that came after victory in Europe and later in Japan during World War II, that nationwide support waned to the point where in the 1960s, our soldiers returning home from Vietnam were welcomed by being called “Baby Killers,” and they were spat upon.
My dad was among the thousands of soldiers who served in Vietnam. At 25 he was the old man in his company — older than everyone with the exception of the first sergeant. He was even older than his company commander.
Fortunately, upon his return home, he was not harassed like so many others, but he was definitely not welcomed with open arms.
On crutches, as his foot was bandaged from shrapnel wounds he received in a mortar attack, the military left him to fend for himself.
Immediately after the mortar attack, he hobbled to the medics tent. He was flown to Japan for treatment, and then with his discharge papers in his pocket and only the uniform on his back and a set of crutches, he was flown to San Francisco. No money, none of his gear from Vietnam, not even money for a meal.
“How can I get to Merced?” he asked a gas station attendant.
Without looking up the man gave my dad driving directions.
When dad replied that he was on foot, the man looked up.
“In that uniform, in this town, you’re not getting a ride,” he said.
Someone thankfully gave him change for the payphone, and he was able to call his mom in Merced, who made the 2.5-hour drive to pick him up.
Luckily, things have changed. Today, our Guard leaders send a team to the demobilization stations to help process our soldiers’ return paperwork. Rather than weeks spent at bases in the U.S. waiting to have the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, the teams our state sends makes the wait only days before our soldiers are back in the arms of their loved ones.
Today, our soldiers and veterans are thanked for their service, and rightfully so.
That thank you never came for many of our Vietnam veterans.
So, although long overdue, thank you and welcome home.
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