The long awaited the words, “welcome home,” echoed along the riverbank greeting over 300 Vietnam Veterans on Flag Day. One by one they marched across the Two-Cent Bridge from Winslow into Waterville. One by one ROTC members, National Guard soldiers, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, Mayor Karen Heck, state representatives, families and friends shook their hands saying, “thank you for your service.”
With over a thousand onlookers embracing them with their eyes the men and women who served in Vietnam were finally and officially given the long overdue respect from a grateful community, and nation.
It was a homecoming that took fifty years to achieve and a cultural shift to realize.
Some Vietnam Veterans cried crossing the bridge, some saluted the flag, some even joked.
“I finally made it back,” said one. “My life starts today,” said another. A sailor proudly wearing his hat from the war also wore a shirt with the brand Old Navy on the front.
Gary Crocker, Maine humorist, and a Navy man who served in Vietnam took the stage after the bridge crossing. There he invited Rep. Susan Morisette to stand with him. He told the audience, “Navy guys have unique ways of making history when they are welcomed home.” He than took hold of the lawmaker and gave her a long kiss, reminding people of the famous photo of a sailor kissing a bystander in New York City.
On a serious note he said, “It was so emotional and powerful to cross that bridge. The healing has begun. Thank you for welcoming us home.”
Military families, friends and patriots lined the riverbank.
Gary Crooker, Maine humorist and Vietnam Navy Veteran, grabs a state lawmaker to give her, a "Navy welcome, kiss," as he participates in the ceremony honoring Vietnam Veterans in Maine. photo by Ramona du Houx”
“It’s pretty cool to be here but its sad too because when these veterans came back from the Vietnam War they were treated bad,” said Max Hopper, the eight year old son of Christopher Hopper who is in the National Guard. “This could help heal.”
For some that meant not feeling guilty for having served in Vietnam. The unconscious blame that society has placed upon these service men and women has lead to over four decades of hardship, and an alarming rate of Vietnam veteran suicides. An emotional Congressman Mike Michaud embraced many of the Veterans when they crossed the bridge and later spoke at the event.
“I’ve been honored to be on the Veterans committee for ten years, and I’ve learned a lot from them and their families,” said Michaud. He then looked at the assembled crowd and in a loud voice declared, “Welcome Home.”
Kennebec Sheriff Randy Liberty, Col. Jack Mosher of the Maine Army National Guard and Peter Ogden, director of Maine Veteran Services, all veterans, planned the homecoming. It all started with Liberty’s idea.
“Great thanks go to Sheriff Liberty for organizing this special homecoming,” said Rep. Meaghan Maloney. “This was a long overdue recognition of the contributions and sacrifice of our Vietnam Veterans. We always need to support our Veterans with actions, not just words. It was an incredibly powerful experience and a great honor for me to participate.”
Ogden has also organized events to honor service personal with special Maine medals. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s and directly understands the discrimination Vietnam Veterans suffered from when they returned home.
“We got blamed for the war, like it was our fault,” said Ogden. “But it wasn’t our fault. We were just doing our job as our country asked.”
Too many Vietnam War Veterans ended up committing suicide and too many remain homeless. Nowadays, thankfully, welcoming home combat veterans has become the norm.
“I was applauded when I got home,” said Mosher who served in Afghanistan from 2003-04. “It’s hard to even imagine what it would be like to come back and be scorned or disparaged. I can’t imagine the devastation that some of these veterans suffered over the years.”
“It’s a chance for all of us to correct an injustice in American history, and maybe bring some healing to veterans,” said Mosher.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Terry Roberson was served in Vietnam in 1965 and ’66. For more than a year, he lived in the jungle alongside other Marines, had to kill Viet Cong soldiers and had to watch his good friends die.
He wore his uniform for the entire bus trip home to Maine from California. On the first leg of the journey some college students pelted the bus with vegetables.
“It was like I was poison,” said Roberson. “No one ever said ‘Welcome home.’”
The event was the first in a 13-year series of annual events planned for other communities throughout Maine. During the next decade similar events will mark the 50th anniversaries of service members returning home after serving tours between 1961 and 1975. There are 46,000 Vietnam veterans living in Maine. “We won’t stop until we’ve recognized every one of them,” said Mosher.
There are over 150,000 service personal in Maine who have served the military during periods of war and peace.
As the sun set a 21-round Howitzer salute, and two trumpeters echoed taps down the river.
Vietnam veterans cross the Two Cents bridge in Waterville, Maine, to be welcomed home officially by the community, family, friends, citizens, and officials. The bridge crossing represented the return. Photo by Ramona du Houx