The march across Cottrell Field wasn’t in double time. And usually it’s fathers and mothers, children and grandparents waiting on the soldiers to released from the formation.
This time, it was fathers and grandfathers greeting the onrush of families.
Fort Stewart held a welcome home ceremony Friday afternoon, but instead of soldiers just removed from the battlefield, these were veterans of a war more than 40 years
“It’s overwhelming,” said Franklin Goldwire, who served as an enlisted man and retired as a colonel. “I had no idea the emotion that would come rushing after all those years.”
More than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam. The U.S. role in Vietnam grew from a limited participation with advisers from 1955 until the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 authorized the use of combat forces.
What had been a complement of 21,000 in 1964 swelled to as many as 553,000 troops in 1969. The U.S. ended its combat role in Vietnam in 1973. In the interim, hundreds of thousands of soldiers came home, without the fanfare and adoration that has greeted American forces returning home for the last 25 years.
“This time, you are not greeted with ridicule,” said Brig. Gen. James Blackburn, the 3rdInfantry Division deputy commanding general and commander of Task Force Marne. “This time, you are welcomed with open arms for the great things you have done and furthered the honor of our nation in your devotion to duty. How fitting is it you walk across this field after the brutal conditions of war you faced, where every day bravery, integrity, dedication, teamwork were tested. How fitting is it you are here with us and how great is it for us to be able to welcome you home.”
Vietnam veteran Butch Hemingway has been at Cottrell Field for countless homecomings as soldiers from Fort Stewart returned from action in the Middle East, “in the rain, snow, heat, and it what made it worse is they would always tell us the plane is delayed,” he said.
Yet Friday afternoon, he was one of the 800 soldiers surrounded by his family, including his grandchildren, part of the crowd of nearly 2,000 people.
“It was well worth coming down here,” he said. “What I thought of was, after 40 years, 50 years, it feels great.”
The Rev. Enos Garvin of Savannah was one of the nearly 200 veterans who gathered at the Paul Smith Education Center to board buses for the short trip to Cottrell Field. Once there, the old soldiers got into formation, and under the lead of Sgt. Maj. (ret.) Adna Chaffee, marched through the stand of trees and advanced on the reviewing stands — just as hundreds of other formations of soldiers have in the last 25 years.
Even if this most recent group marched just a tad slower.
“Marching ain’t quite as easy as it used to be,” he said. “When you’re 19 years old and now you’re 68, it’s a little bit of difference.”
It was a silent march across the grass of Cottrell Field. According to Goldwire, there was a good amount of talking in the ranks among the Vietnam vets.
“We were reminiscing over the cadence and the jawing we would give each other in battle, just to keep it upbeat,” he said. “Just the fellowship of it all, it was awesome.”
The raucous reception from hundreds of people gathered in the bleachers and in front of the stands was a welcome sight for Garvin and the other former soldiers.
“It means a welcome home and to accept the fact that were soldiers,” he said. “We were soldiers, whether they respected us or not. It truly feels good inside to know we are accepted as Vietnam veterans. It was a long time coming, but better late than never.”
Brig. Gen. Blackburn noted that the American forces were never defeated in battle during the Vietnam War and that the Vietnam soldiers played a role in ending the Cold War.
“We serve for the folks on our left and right. We serve for the folks in our platoon, and we chose to do the best we could possibly do each day were deployed to face the enemy,” he said.
More than 58,000 Americans were killed during the Vietnam War, and another 153,000 were wounded. Many also carried psychological and emotional scars from their service and from their treatment upon returning Stateside.
“It was obviously a good thing to do,” Goldwire said of the welcome home ceremony. “I suspect there were a number of veterans just waiting for this day. I think it’s going to be closure for a lot of the veterans who never got the welcome they deserved and they expected.
“Always remember, never forget — service to country is something we were proud to do.”