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In contrast to today's troops, Vietnam veterans welcomed with scorn, not esteem

By Sherry Koonce skoonce@news-journal.com
Nov. 10, 2012 at 10 p.m.


Amid a sea of American flags flying in the autumn breeze, a group of U.S. Army reserve soldiers came home from a year-long tour in Afghanistan to a hero's welcome.

There, on the tarmac this past week at East Texas Regional Airport, friends, family and others waited to show appreciation for the men who had served their country in war. They were revered.

As befitting as the homecoming was for the men of the 721st Engineering Company, many veterans remember a time when their homecoming was not celebrated.

Ron Frey was 21 when he returned in 1968 from serving two years in Vietnam. For him, the memory of that homecoming is as painful today as it was 44 years ago.

"I flew into Oakland, California, where I was spit on and called names," he recalled.

The soldier returned broken and wounded from nearly two years of active combat.

While he had battled the North Vietnamese daily in rice paddies 45 miles from Saigon, back home, a day seldom passed that Americans did not watch images on the six-o'clock news of protesters burning flags and draft cards.

It was commonplace for soldiers returning from the unpopular war to be spat upon - physically and emotionally.

"I wanted to get out of that uniform as quickly as I could. It's not that I was ashamed of it, I just did not want to put up with that ill-will that was felt for us," Frey said of his ride home those years ago to Poplar Bluff, Mo.

As the days turned into weeks, and he began to search for employment, Frey soon learned his military service was not appreciated there, either.

"I remember looking for a job," he recalled. "You did not put Vietnam vet on the application or you would be turned down immediately."

Far from being an isolated case, Frey's experience was the norm in those days of dissent.

William Perkins, now a 68- year-old Longview resident, remembers the name calling and irreverence directed toward him. Arriving at the airport, the U.S. Army veteran was called "baby-killer" by young Americans almost as soon as he stepped onto U.S. soil.

On the plane ride home to Texas from California, Perkins realized how deeply many Americans held the soldiers' service to their country in disdain.

One passenger, he said, asked to be moved to another seat because they saw his uniform and did not want to sit by a Vietnam soldier.

The disrespect made him angry, but he said he developed thick skin.

"The only way I could get over it was to tell myself that I had fought for their right for freedom to do that," Perkins said."

'Never a draft dodger'

Like many Vietnam veterans, Perkins said he doesn't sleep well at night, and is haunted by the memory of the battlefield and the way people treated him when he came home.

After all, though drafted, he didn't have to go to war.

To avoid the battlefield, many young men during the 1960s and early 1970s fled to Canada.

There, conscientious objectors to the war, also known as draft-dodgers, were offered asylum.

"A Vietnam vet has been labeled a lot of things, but never a draft dodger," Perkins said.

He's still proud of his service, and remembers the horror of the Central Islands battleground - known as the meat grinder - vividly.

"We were under fire seven days a week. We got mortared every day there," Perkins said.

He was 22 while serving in Vietnam; the average age for a soldier then was 19.

"I heard them call for their mamas, heard them call for their daddies," Perkins said. "The memories are bad, something you will take with you to your grave."

And a veteran did not have to see active combat in those days to be looked down upon.

Dewayne Pullen, 61, of Longview, was in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to administrative duties stateside in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Because he was home, he had a better grasp of the political climate and the nation's view of the war.

Still, he was not prepared for the ill treatment he received.

"It was common to see on TV people protesting, burning their draft cards," Pullen said. "There were a lot of hippies with peace signs protesting the war."

'I was not going to run'

Pullen remembers classmates in his East Texas hometown of Union Grove asking him to go to Canada to avoid the draft.

He refused to shirk his duty, and was drafted right out of high school.

"I was not going to run. If Uncle Sam wanted me, I was going to to go," Pullen said. "As a draft dodger you are disgracing your family and your country."

While hitchhiking home on leave once, Pullen remembers a car stopping.

"The car pulled over, it was full of young people. I thought they were going to give me a ride, but one of them poured a beer on me, and they took off laughing," Pullen said.

After the car sped off, all he could do was stand there.

"I stood there on the side of the road feeling disgraced. Had I not been wearing my uniform they probably would not have done that. They probably would have given me a ride."

At 30, Longview resident Danny Whyte was older than most when he served in Vietnam, though he enlisted in the military when he was 16.

He'd wanted to be a U.S. Marine since he was a young boy watching newsreels.

In Vietnam, he was a platoon sergeant during the Tet Offensive. There, he said, he saw one Marine kill 47 North Vietnamese single-handedly in one day.

The loss of life, on both sides of the battlefield, was horrendous, he said.

Because of serious injury, Whyte took a different route home. A military plane for the wounded transported him to the Guam Naval Hospital for treatment of what has been a lifelong injury.

"I got hit with a Chinese communist grenade, called a Chi/Com. It went through my mouth and came out on the side of my neck," Whyte said.

The injury ultimately led to three brain surgeries.

He received additional medical care at Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco, where he witnessed the ill will young Americans felt toward Vietnam soldiers.

"On TV that night in the rec room, it showed a naval vessel going against the Golden Gate Bridge. The protesters were on the bridge dropping trash on them. That broke my heart," Whyte said. "That boiled my blood."

Later that night, it was reported that protesters were outside Travis Air Force Base.

"These people were burning their draft cards and shouting, 'Hell no, we won't go,' right outside the hospital," he said.

'Least we can do'

Too many years. Too many bad memories. The men resolved to help make certain today's returning vets - like those of the 721st - are never disgraced in homecoming as they were. All of them make it a practice to attend welcome home ceremonies that have become commonplace in East Texas.

"We welcome them out at the airport whether they come in in a body bag or walking," Perkins said. "That is the least we can to to ensure that everybody coming home knows they are welcome, and that there service was appreciated."

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