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There is nothing more sincerely hoped for by the warrior than a true and deeply felt welcome home. The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan today are, thankfully, receiving that kind of welcome at every level. We have seen that on YouTube, in our local newspapers, and now on a new "reality TV" program. And this is a profoundly good thing.
As a Vietnam veteran it makes me proud to see that the nation has matured in its ability to separate the veteran from the political perspectives one might have, and to recognize the real service and, more importantly, the real sacrifices those military personnel have endured on our behalf.
When I finished my tour in Vietnam in February of 1969, I was flown to Okinawa, Japan on a commercial jet paid for by the government. To have been in the field only hours before and to suddenly find yourself on a modern airliner, with stewardesses and all the amenities of the day, was like stepping out of a nightmare and into an illusion. It was difficult to wrap our minds around the swiftness of that transition, to accept it as reality.
After four or five days in Okinawa, we began the transition of moving from a 24/7/365 battle-ready mentality toward an ordinary, everyday American life – by boarding another airliner. We flew thirteen hours to a military base outside of Los Angeles. We were debriefed, given our leave papers and travel money, and then had to get ourselves to the LA International Airport to arrange our own flights home to every corner of America.
That was the unique reality of our time. Most of us went to Vietnam and came home afterwards as individuals - very rarely, if ever, as entire units. We had to negotiate the coming home complexities by ourselves, on our own, alone.
My home was in Stamford, Connecticut. I called to give my family my flight information and arrival time, but got no answer. My flight was within minutes of leaving, so I had to get aboard without notifying anybody, which meant that no one would be there to greet me when I landed. I had purchased a military standby flight to Kennedy Airport on Long Island. You had to fly in uniform to get the military airfare then, so I was in my Marine dress greens with my Navy Hospital Corpsman stripes and the caducei on my lapels. I had done my duty, had served my Marines well. This was something I was proud of, and for which maybe a little respect was due.
To make a long story short, I landed at Kennedy, called home, and my family answered the phone. They were tortured by the fact that they weren't at the airport to greet me when I landed. Stamford is about an hour's drive from Kennedy. So, there I waited in the great hall of the airport, in my dress uniform, with my duffel bag and the tense look of one who feels terribly out of place. While I waited, I was the target of angry, even hateful looks and the occasional derisive remark, hissed in passing. No one, not one soul came up to me to shake my hand or to welcome me home.
By the time my family arrived I was strung as tight as a fiddle string. But, oh how good it was to see those familiar faces. Their firm, true, and sincere affection, and their joy at my safe return, was priceless and a balm to the paradoxical storm of emotions I was feeling. When I arrived at the family house back in Stamford, my best friends were there waiting in the living room to greet me as well. I was physically home, but it took a long time for me to get home emotionally and mentally because, although my family welcomed me, my country did not.
This is why I am so glad to see that the returning veterans of this generation are being welcomed home so openly, so positively, and so sincerely. It is going to be just as tough for them to re-enter civil society as it was for my generation of warriors, but they are coming home to the respect and care that they deserve. Keep welcoming these military men and women home with your sincere joy and, more importantly, with your respect. They have faced the worst that human behavior can bring to bear, and survived with courage and dignity. In time they will become valuable leaders in society.
So, with great respect, I offer my "Welcome Home" to you returning veterans. I look forward to seeing the good things that you will do with your lives. God bless you all.