Curtis Thompson was on his own when he came home from the Vietnam War. The Army handed him a plane ticket, wished him well and sent him to Seattle.
He got a quick sense for how unpopular the war had become during his year overseas.
“No one at the airport wanted to make eye contact, nor on the airplane,” he remembered.
The Army wants to give Thompson and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans a different kind of homecoming next week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It’s opening the base to Vietnam veterans of all service branches for a “welcome home” celebration intended to let them know that the military appreciates the sacrifices they made in uniform.
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“Our generation wants to thank them for the incredible contributions they made to our nation during war,” said Brig. Gen. Kurt Ryan, whose 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command is doing the legwork organizing the event.
“We have an opportunity to maybe get them the welcome home they may not have been afforded in 1975,” said Ryan, whose dad is among the Vietnam veterans planning to attend.
The four-hour celebration is intended to look a lot like the military ceremonies Vietnam veterans might remember from their time in the service. It’ll include a parade in formations led by military flags, a pinning ceremony for veterans to receive recognition for their service, and remarks from decorated Vietnam veteran retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
That format is a common scene today for troops at Lewis-McChord. The rituals of their homecomings are marked by frenzied celebrations with their families just after soldiers get off the plane. They’re flanked by the troops with whom they served overseas all the way from the war zone to the homecoming.
Afterward, they get regular post-deployment health checkups before the Army allows them to be assigned to a new unit. Often they close out their experience at war with military balls or change-of-command ceremonies that attempt to put a bookend on their experiences.
Vietnam was a different story. Back then, soldiers would deploy in ones and twos as replacements to units that were already overseas. They’d come home by themselves, too, abruptly leaving military life for the civilian world.
“Very surreal,” said Thompson of Kirkland. “Nothing like you’d call out-processing.”
He went back to work for Boeing when he came home. He didn’t talk much about the year he spent as an Army dental hygienist and combat medic.
“Virtually no one wanted to know that I’d been in the Army,” he said.
The idea to host a new homecoming for Vietnam veterans came from I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the top Army officer at JBLM. He wanted to mark the war’s 50th anniversary. By presidential order, events commemorating that anniversary for the long war can take place from 2012 to 2025.
Thompson attended one last year in Seattle. He’s a member of the King County Veterans Advisory Board and has been urging his peers to participate in next week’s event.
“That was the first event that ever happened for me where someone actually said ‘Thank you for serving,’ and it was specific to Vietnam,” he said about last year’s ceremony.
The word is out among the Puget Sound’s veteran community about next week’s event. Already, more than 400 people have made reservations. More are welcome. The base expects about 1,000 veterans to attend.
“We were never welcomed when we came back,” said Richard Whipple, adjutant quartermaster for the state chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Fife. He served in the Navy during Vietnam.
“Every time we welcome home the Vietnam vets,” he said, “that makes it better for them.”