It has only been for about the last 10 years that Marine veteran Gene Stewart has felt comfortable wearing his “Vietnam Veteran” hat and Marine Corps sweatshirt in public.
Stewart came home from Vietnam in October 1969 after spending 13 months in-country. He recalls when he got home, people did spit on the soldiers and called them names like “baby killers.” He also said the military had not warned the returning soldiers of the anti-war movement going on it the United States. He said from then on, many veterans just never told anyone they had served in Vietnam. He commented that to this day there are veterans who never tell people of their service. Over the last decade or so attitudes have changed regarding the returing soldiers. It has culminated with a day of rememberance for the troops who served in Vietnam.
For many years, Vietnam veterans did not have a day of remembrance to call their own. All of that has now changed. In 2012, President Barack Obama declared March 29, 2012, Vietnam Veterans Day. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act into law, designating March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
Stewart is happy the day has been set aside, saying it is a contrast to the turmoil that was going on when he first returned to the United States.
“It was that era when everyone was picketing and rioting to get us out of the war,” he said. “They wouldn’t go to war, but they thought they knew all about it.”
Stewart said Vietnam veterans are treated differently now than they were at the time, but it took decades. He said many of the young people today know very little about Vietnam.
Henry County Veterans Affairs chair Jim Onorato, a Naval veteran who served one tour in Vietnam. He was a commander of a four-LCpl boat fleet in Vietnam and also served six tours onboard ship. He said he had no problems coming home. He flew into the airport in uniform. He commented this was in 1967 and he believes the problems veterans had coming home started about 1968. He also said in the Midwest, soldiers seemed to always be treated with respect. He said an article was done on him in the Mt. Pleasant News to honor his return.
“That attitude hadn’t reached Iowa,” he said.
When the two men learned of the National Vietnam War Veterans Day, they simply commented that it was about time veterans of their era were recognized for their contributions. Stewart also said he hopes a day is set aside for Korean War veterans as well.
Both veterans recently went on the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., and they saw the pride of many people in them. They described hundreds of people who gathered at the airport to shake their hands. Coming home there was a line of Iowa State troopers waiting to honor them. They said they hadn’t expected that kind of response.
Onorato said the attitude today is completely different. He said soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are respected when they come home. He believes the main difference is people understand why they are fighting. He said even soldiers in Vietnam had questioned why they were fighting.
“Our friends lost their lives there,” he said. “We went and served our country and served our flag, we’re very proud of that. You have to be proud. You have to back your country.”
Many soldiers who served in the Vietnam War recall, due to widespread opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, being met with disdain upon returning home and not receiving support or gratitude for their service. The war lasted from November 1955 to April 1975. Out of the 2.7 million U.S. service members who served in Vietnam, more than 58,000 were killed and more than 304,000 were wounded. An estimate by the Smithsonian suggests that approximately 271,000 Vietnam veterans may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many report only recently feeling they had been accepted back into their home country.
Stewart and Onorato are also members of American Legion Post No. 94 from Salem. They commented the post is not planning any special events Friday because none of the members knew the designation had been made.