Stephen Stribling looked wide-eyed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Thursday as he walked into a column of uniformed sailors waiting to thank him for his service in the Vietnam War.
The 66-year-old grinned as he took in the appreciation of active-duty troops. It was nothing like the lonely homecoming he experienced at the end of his combat tour in 1968.
“I’m like a baby to something like this. It’s so unreal,” he said.
Stribling’s new Vietnam homecoming — 46 years in the making — unfolded at a JBLM salute to Vietnam-era veterans. It was meant to recognize a generation of military service members who too often felt scorned by the public after serving overseas.
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“It is never too late, never too late, to pay tribute to the men and women who served and continue to serve our country,” said I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the senior Army officer at JBLM.
Lanza’s call to honor Vietnam veterans struck a chord in the Northwest. More than 2,500 veterans or families of veterans crowded the parade field at JBLM to participate in the salute. Most of them came from Western Washington and Oregon, with some of them wearing old jungle-green uniforms or clothes bearing the insignias of their military units.
“I just wanted to be around people who might know what I did,” said John Schrader, 70, of Tacoma. He flew more than 70 combat missions in the war for an Air Force unit that jammed enemy radars.
Some of the attendees were the kind of veterans who never really left the military community. They’re the old-timers who rarely miss a homecoming for JBLM troops serving in Afghanistan and often take part in veteran service organizations around the South Sound.
“When we came home as Vietnam veterans, they didn’t like us. I’m glad they like us now,” said Magnum Tulto, 79, a former Army sergeant first class who stayed in Pierce County after retiring out of Fort Lewis.
Lanza wanted to recognize the veterans in part because he noticed Vietnam veterans waiting to tell him “welcome home” whenever he returned from a deployment to Iraq. “We just thought, they never had that,” he said.
Many of the attendees were veterans who only recently have begun talking about their military service. They were troops who put away their war stories because they sensed the public demanding an end to combat in Southeast Asia.
“I was really proud, and then when I hit the states, it was altogether different,” said Bill Hendrickson, 70, of Portland, remembering his return from Vietnam in 1969.
He struggled in college after leaving the Marine Corps. He didn’t want to talk about his experience in the war, and often tried to hide it from his peers.
But lately, Hendrickson has been taking part in an honor guard that attends funerals for Marine veterans. He wore a red Marine honor guard jacket to the salute, and said he wanted to be there to “pay tribute to these guys.”
The salute was timed with the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. By presidential order, events marking that milestone can be celebrated from 2012 to 2025.
JBLM’s celebration included a procession of flags of Northwest military units, a display of modern military vehicles where veterans talked with current troops and remarks from decorated Vietnam veteran retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Soldiers, airmen and Marines from JBLM were on the scene, as well as dozens of sailors from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, which is based in Bremerton.
The war cost the lives of more than 58,000 American military service members. More than 300,000 were wounded, thousands more have suffered debilitating medical conditions stemming from the exposure to Agent Orange.
McCaffrey thanked the veterans for making those sacrifices, and for showing up when they knew the nation had turned against the war.
“Many of you as teenagers, you did the right thing. You stepped forward and you kept your country safe,” McCaffrey said in a speech that focused on lessons the nation learned from Vietnam.
Stribling did not feel much appreciation when he finished his tour with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He had spent a year filling in for undermanned infantry companies or driving supply trucks under fire.
His homecoming was “pretty bad. There wasn’t one,” he said.
His son-in-law, Army Lt. Col. Jeff Schmidt of JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division, brought him out from Coral Springs, Florida, for the veterans salute.
“I feel it’s important to give them the welcome home that soldiers get today. They served our country just as honorably as us,” Schmidt said.