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A long overdue welcome home
Pat Donahue cmyk
Pat Donahue

It’s been a long time in coming. And long overdue.

Friday afternoon, Fort Stewart will host a welcome home celebration for veterans of the Vietnam War. Yes, it will be very hot on the wide open and shadeless expanse of Cottrell Field. But for a generation of soldiers who by and large, with a few rare exceptions, were ignored at best and spat upon and reviled at worst as they returned home from combat in Southeast Asia, it’s their chance for a warm greeting.

Friday’s event is part of the Department of Defense’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the start of America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam War. American troops had been in Vietnam in what was termed an advisory role up until 1965. My mother’s three brothers all served in Vietnam. Uncle Pat was in the Air Force, stationed in Vietnam before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution sent Marines ashore in 1965.

Uncles Terry and Jack were there after ’65. We were fortunate that my dad, then as always a noncommissioned officer, didn’t have to go. Maybe it was the six then seven kids in the quarters. Maybe it was because they didn’t need his particular skill set there at the time. Whatever the reason, I am grateful he didn’t have to go.

Yet so many of his friends — and so others who are great men and I came to call friends later in life — did go to Vietnam. Some went multiple times.

And when they got home with their duffel bags thrown over their shoulders, there were no throngs of excited family members with posters, balloons, flowers and hugs. For the vast majority, they had nothing remotely resembling that.

Still, many of those same veterans, with no one to greet them as they returned from combat, have been there to greet the men and women who have left Fort Stewart’s pine trees for the deserts of the Middle East and the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. In boiling heat, in the dead of night, no matter the time or elements, they’ve been there to make sure the returning soldiers had someone to shake their hand and tell them “welcome home.”

For them, resentment is a foreign word. Because they didn’t get showered with affection as they got back from war, they wanted to make sure the following generations of soldiers got a proper greeting upon their return. And for 25 years and thousands of flights for tens of thousands of soldiers, they’ve done just that.

Now, it’s their turn. More than 40 years late. But it’s better than never.

“It is a belated way to welcome our Vietnam veterans back,” said Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, a Vietnam era veteran. “We did it for World War II, we did it for Korean War vets. We greet every flight that goes out to places in the world and we greet every flight that comes back. We’re trying to make our soldiers realize that the country is behind them.”

Regardless of what you think of your most recent conflicts and whether we should have been involved, regardless of whether you thought the U.S. should have been involved in conflict in Southeast Asia, the men and women who went to Vietnam and fought, many honorably and nobly, merit a proper and fitting welcome home.