I came home from Vietnam in 1971 as a very young buck sergeant. I had just finished 23 hours of air time and layovers on a stretch-eight aircraft picking up soldiers from around the world. We were headed home from one of the most horrible wars ever.
This was a military flight and no civilians were aboard to give us the evil eye for smuggling booze in our luggage. We felt no pain as we flew over the Golden Gate Bridge.
We stood in the seats singing God Bless America and rocked from side to side. The pilot gave us a friendly warning that he could not land the plane until we took our seats.
Before we sat down, we had one more drink, one more hug and one more cry with our comrades in arms. We were still able to walk, talk and wrap our arms around family and friends. When I got to the bottom of the aircraft stairs, I kneeled and kissed that wonderful American earth.
Then we were herded into a hangar where a lieutenant told us we'd be processed through a separate facility so there'd be no contact with civilians. He advised us to buy civilian clothing and get out of uniform quickly. He said "Thank you for service to your country; however beyond these hangar walls lies a not-so-pleasant attitude toward you."
He was right. It was not a pretty picture.
This year I attended Veterans Day ceremonies at the Aiken County Memorial. They were sponsored by Marines Corps League Cmdr. Ed Hammonds and all of its veteran members. These military heroes closed many emotional wounds that were still festering from the Vietnam War.
There were many fine speakers, who seemed to embrace the veterans' hearts with their well-chosen words and stories. Cmdr. Hammonds ended the ceremony with a crackling voice that simply stated what a nation could never say: "Welcome home."
Minus the booze, the Vietnam veterans met at the center of the memorial. We hugged, we cried, we reaffirmed our loyalty to our country and our flag, and - through the tears, the scarred bodies, the broken spirits and haunting memories - we bid each other: "Welcome home."
Jim Vause, Warrenville, S.C.
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