The hostile reception is still vivid for Bill Ray.
When he came home to Hobbs, N.M., his father, a World War II veteran, had arranged for him to join the local VFW post. But as Ray sat down to have a beer with his dad, an older member of the post let him know he wasn’t welcome.
“He said, ‘You can’t be a member here.’ And I said, ‘Thirteen months in Vietnam, I damn sure can,’” Ray recalled. “He said: ‘No. You lost the war, and you’re a baby killer.’”
It was too much. Ray turned to his father, who said he wasn’t finished with his beer.
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“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got three choices: I can leave with you. I can walk out of here. Or I can have the police haul me out after I knock this son of a bitch on his butt,’” said Ray, who chose to walk out.
Ray, who lives in Arlington, quickly learned not to talk about his time in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam veterans say the negative treatment intensified after the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive on Jan. 31, 1968. The coordinated attack targeted more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam.
Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces eventually repelled the attacks, political support for the war eroded back home. The Paris Peace Accords would be signed with North Vietnam on Jan. 27, 1973, which brought the remaining U.S. troops home. Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975.
Like many other veterans of the unpopular war, Ray kept his emotions bottled up for years. Then, in 2005, he attended a reunion of the 39th Engineer Battalion alumni group in San Antonio.
“That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Ray said. “I probably pulled over five times on that drive to San Antone. I had my doubts, but once I walked in there, it was entirely different.”
Ten years later, he’s president of the group.
Now, an attempt is finally being made to right the wrongs inflicted on veterans.
Ray, as commander of American Legion Post 624 in Mansfield, is part of an organizing committee for the “Welcome Home 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War” at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth.
It’s part of a 10-year Defense Department program that includes events around the country.
“I’m hoping that there are Vietnam vets out there who haven’t found their old buddies,” Ray said. “I’m hoping it might open them up a little bit.”
Up to 3,000 people are expected to attend Saturday’s event. Base officials say it will become an annual event over the next decade.
“Our generation has benefited tremendously from Vietnam vets — greeting us at airports, supporting us with family-day events on the base,” said Navy Capt. Gil Miller, the commanding officer at the air station. “You wouldn’t know that by the reception they got when they got back home.”
Healing old wounds
Miller said he understands how Vietnam vets felt.
His father-in-law, a Green Beret, was met with hostility when he came home, and his father, who was in the Navy but wasn’t stationed in Vietnam, never forgot the way veterans were treated.
In 1969, Miller’s father took a photo of a house in Norfolk, Va., that displayed a sign saying, “No sailors, no dogs on the lawn.” That photo hung on the wall of the family home until his death in 1998.
“That hurt him,” Miller said. “That was brutal.”
But Miller said he hopes the ceremony can help heal some of those old slights, bringing the veterans the appreciation and support they didn’t get when they came home.
But it may not be easy.
Andy Asberry, who lives in Johnson County, started coming out of his shell about 20 years ago.
A job was held for him at a Goodyear tire store, but his boss didn’t want to hire him back and vowed to run him off. His co-workers were fellow Vietnam veterans, but he didn’t know that for years.
“You just didn’t talk about it,” Asberry said.
To cope, Asberry camped out alone in New Mexico “30 miles from the nearest paved road.” Even now, large cities and big crowds make him uncomfortable.
He found solace at a 25th Aviation Battalion reunion in the mid-’90s. He also joined VFW Post 6872 and quickly decided to become involved in the activities. He is now the post commander.
“I feel this compelling urge to make a difference,” Asberry said. “It feels great.”
But Asberry and a fellow Vietnam vet know that many remain hesitant to take part in Saturday’s event and are likely to ask why it took so long.
James Hotopp, also a member of VFW Post 6872 and an organizer of Saturday’s event, said: “I think it’s great, but a lot of veterans don’t. They don’t want to participate in it because they don’t accept it. A lot of members of my VFW post still have some strong feelings.”
Hotopp was a Navy machinist on a destroyer in a support role in Vietnam. He didn’t see the gruesome horrors of war that many soldiers experienced. And when he came home, he got a job at General Dynamics (now Lockheed) and was surrounded by co-workers who had also been in the military.
Hotopp said attitudes began to change after the 9-11 attacks, when a wave of patriotism swept the country.
After 9-11, the public started thanking veterans for their service. For Hotopp, that has stirred complex emotions.
“When somebody thanks you for your service, I don’t know how to explain it, but you can tell whether they’re really sincere or whether it’s just the socially acceptable thing to do,” Hotopp said.
Hotopp appreciates it most when it comes from a fellow veteran.
Ray said he hopes some of the reluctant vets will show up Saturday.
“I’m hoping it’s just a great turnout,” Ray said. “I’m hoping that there are Vietnam vets out there who haven’t found their old buddies. I’m hoping it might open them up a little bit.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
If you go
Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth will host a “Welcome Home” event for Vietnam veterans and their families. Gates will open at 8 a.m., with the main ceremonies scheduled for 10 a.m. The public is welcome.