Vietnam vets celebrate homecoming decades after return

Photo by Neal Cardin
9/11 survivor Tony Rose, right, shakes a Vietnam veteran's hand Saturday after giving the vet a commemorative medal and patch celebrating the 35th anniversary of the U.S troop withdrawal from Vietnam. The ceremony took place in the Camp Siagon area at the Heartland Festival at Freeman Lake Park.

The News Enterprise
August 29, 2010
By BOB WHITE

Hauling ammo to the front lines of war-era Vietnam, former 3rd Marine Battalion driver Charles Stafford knew very well who his enemies were.

Their sights quite often were set on him and his supply line during his 1967-68 tour of duty.

"They wanted us bad," Stafford said of the communist North Vietnamese forces.

Stafford wasn't surprised he was a target in Vietnam.

"I knew what I faced there," Stafford said. "But I didn't know who my enemy was here."

Just before Christmas 1968, while the Frankfort native and a handful of other soldiers were on their way home from the war zone, a connector flight dropped them off in Dallas for a six-hour layover.

It was there he received a homecoming he'll never forget.

"They hated us," Stafford said, of people in Dallas he encountered during his layover. "They spit at us and laughed at us. They looked at us like we were drug users."

Dallas in 1968, according to Stafford, was a hotbed of anti-war and anti-soldier sentiment. And he took a heavy dose of it.

He wasn't alone.

Thousands of other soldiers returning from wartime Vietnam received similar homecomings.

It's partly for that reason that this year's Kentucky Heartland Festival, and the entire past week between Fort Knox and Elizabethtown has been dedicated to giving Vietnam vets the warm welcome they deserved decades ago.

On Saturday, Stafford was among more than 100 Vietnam vets who attended a very special, albeit late, event at Freeman Lake in Elizabethtown to give veterans who are now in their late 50s and 60s the kind of homecoming they should have received when they were in their 20s.

America pulled out of Vietnam, losing a battle between capitalism and communism.

"We left in disgrace," according to Stafford. But that was politics.

The soldiers, just like those of today working in Afghanistan and recently returning from Iraq, were doing what they were told to do.

Vietnam-era DJ Adrian Cronauer – who gained wide fame after Robin Williams' movie "Good Morning Vietnam" – spoke at Saturday's Camp Saigon at Freeman Lake Park about misperceptions people had of soldiers like Stafford who faced ridicule and hate upon their return home.

Cronauer said he "met a lot" of soldiers, sailors and airmen, but "never met a baby killer," or rapist, or murderer or psychotic man like that portrayed too often through stateside media during the Vietnam conflict.

"What I did meet," Cronauer said, with his solid radio voice raising louder and louder across the many speakers at Freeman Lake, "was good and honorable men and women doing their duty … as honorably as they could."

The round of applause following Cronauer's statements made it obvious that, four decades after the war, the former DJ is as much a patriotic public speaker as he ever was, or is a comedian.

The humor he provided on Saturday merely prepped a crowd for the big shot of American patriotism that followed.

Bob White can be reached at (270) 505-1750.

This story, written by Bob White, was provided to One Knox courtesy of The News Enterprise. Read more stories from The News Enterprise at www.thenewsenterprise.com.