By KEVIN BRADY
What a difference four decades make.
Vietnam veterans received an indifferent and sometimes hostile reception 40 years ago when they returned from a war some Americans wanted to forget. But just last weekend the veterans were welcomed home with speeches and salutes.
The “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” at Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. Highway 301 drew more than 300 veterans and their supporters from all over the Bay area.
“It was about trying to give our Vietnam veterans a well-deserved welcome home,” said Riverview’s Mike Odell, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 787, who was master of ceremonies for the event. “We had an awesome group of people there,” he said. “I couldn’t have been more pleased with the turnout.”
Ending in 1973, the Vietnam War took the lives of more than 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans, and introduced the United States to terms like Agent Orange and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which scar the lives of thousands of veterans to this day.
James Bradley, who lost friends in the war, said the welcome home is well deserved.
“Most of the guys in the Vietnam era were told not to wear their uniforms because [of] the abuse they got from the people who were against the war,” said the Apollo Beach resident, a former reservist and a member of Rolling Thunder, a national veterans support motorcycle group founded by two Vietnam veterans.
The war changed America, said Bradley, whose children have all served in the military.
“I think it made us a little more isolationist and a little less tolerant of action overseas,” he said. “Our country doesn’t have the tolerance for any kind of a long-term military involvement.”
Veterans are still suffering, Bradley said. “They have flashbacks and PTSD. I know a Korean War vet [who] was a POW for 38 months, and he tells me he still wakes up with nightmares.”
Dr. Richard Swier, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served in Vietnam, and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. David Scott both paid tribute to vets at the event with Rolling Thunder providing a moving POW/MIA ceremony. Members of the Vietnamese Professionals of Tampa Bay also thanked vets for their service.
Not properly welcoming home Vietnam vets was “the only time the nation has ever failed those who served in 350 years of fighting battles,” said Scott, a former deputy director of the Center for Special Operations at MacDill Air Force Base.
He said, “Today is not a celebration but an observance and a recognition that there was a time that, when exercising our freedom of speech, we as a nation took our anger at the government and frustration with our social issues out on those who were serving the nation [who] did not have a choice,” Scott said.
“The irony is, their service and sacrifice, their pain that still endures, was done to protect that very freedom of speech and thought.”
The military has never enjoyed so much respect as they do today “and the veterans of the Vietnam War paid for that,” Scott said.
Welcoming home Vietnam vets is an honor for Kelly Kowall, president of My Warrior’s Place, a retreat center for veterans, families of the fallen and military service members in Ruskin.
“Vietnam veterans were instrumental in helping us getting the center ready,” said Kowall, who opened My Warrior’s Place after her son, U.S. Army Specialist Corey Kowall, died in Afghanistan on Sept. 20, 2009, while serving with the 82nd Airborne.
“My son was an avid Vietnam history buff, and he was inspired by the Vietnam veterans to become the soldier he became, so it’s my honor that I am able to give back to them,” Kowall said.
While he was pleased with the attendance, Odell was not happy with the absences of local politicians.
“They were all invited, from the state level on down,” Odell said. “We’ve been kicked around and kicked around and our government has this 50th Vietnam commemorative that we are part of, and we had no government officials at any level who were there,” said Odell, who is also president of the Hillsborough County Veterans Council.
Odell also works with homeless veteran support groups and collects furniture, household goods and clothing for vets. To donate or for more information, call Odell at 603-234-3363.