Vietnam vets get the recognition they deserve

There was no heroes’ welcome. When Tim McDonald and other Americans returned from their Vietnam War duty, they were ignored or worse.

“Many Vietnam veterans, myself included, we didn’t feel the support of the nation at all,” he said Thursday.

McDonald, 65, was in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. He was in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

It was 40 years ago today — March 29, 1973 — that the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam, officially ending direct American military involvement in the Vietnam War. Two years later, in 1975, the Saigon government fell.

McDonald lives on Whidbey Island. He is retiring today from his job as director of the Snohomish Health District’s communicable disease control division. Not only does the Vietnam War seem like ages ago, he said, “it seems like an entire separate universe.”

One major difference between then and now is the honor accorded servicemen and women returning from war. Today, Americans are united in our gratitude for veterans’ military service.

During the Vietnam War era, that wasn’t so. Troops came home to anti-war demonstrations, and were ignored or insulted.

Today, our state takes a step toward righting a wrong. At 9:15 a.m., Gov. Jay Inslee plans to sign House Bill 1319, an act declaring that March 30 be recognized each year as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day in Washington state.

Not a legal holiday, it’s a day of remembrance on which public places will display the POW-MIA flag along with the American flag. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, and a number of co-sponsors, including Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip.

The proposal was brought to Johnson by a member of the Yakama Warriors Association, an American Indian veterans group in Eastern Washington.

An Air Force veteran, McCoy was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1968. That was the year of the Tet Offensive, heavy attacks by North Vietnamese forces. Clark Air Base was the major supply base for U.S. forces in Vietnam.

McCoy didn’t serve in Vietnam, but his memories of seeing what happened there are vivid.

“My place of work was across the street from the base morgue. I did see coffins stacked up,” McCoy said Wednesday.

He said his wife Jeannie had the harder time. A civilian worker in the base hospital’s records section, “she had to take records all over the facility,” McCoy said. “Hallways, waiting rooms, everywhere was clogged with the wounded, still in battle uniforms. It took her a long time to get over that.”

It is decades late, but McCoy hopes the day to welcome Vietnam veterans home will make a meaningful statement.

“My hope is that it brings closure for the troops, that their service is acknowledged and that it was not in vain,” McCoy said. “We still have veterans — that war will never leave them. They still struggle with it,” he said.

After Inslee signs the bill, the state House and Senate will honor Vietnam veterans. There will also be a short ceremony today at the Washington State Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Capitol campus.

“Too often our Vietnam veterans returned home to a less than grateful nation, so it is fitting that we embrace these heroes today,” Alfie Alvarado, director of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement Thursday. She said Washington is home to more than 200,000 Vietnam veterans.

Heidi Audette, a spokeswoman for the state’s veterans department, said Vietnam veterans are encouraged to seek the benefits they earned. “There are specific problems tied to exposure to Agent Orange. It’s not too late to go back to the VA, for either health care services or disability compensation,” she said.

Tim Davis is the manager and head clinician at the Everett Vet Center, a facility of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The treatment Vietnam vets got after they got back home from Vietnam was almost criminal. They felt the rejection by the general population,” Davis said.

He believes that even if Vietnam veterans say the welcome-home day is coming way too late, the state’s action will touch them. “What they will say is, ‘It’s too late.’ The reality will be something different,” Davis said.

In recent years, veterans have told Davis that strangers have come up to thank them after seeing a baseball cap or other indication that they served in Vietnam. “They tell me this in tears,” he said.

Davis served in the Army from 1969 until 1991. During the Vietnam War, he worked in amputee services at Valley Forge Army General Hospital in Pennsylvania.

Today, he helps veterans of all ages who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“It doesn’t matter if it was Somalia or Vietnam or Iraq, it’s all the same. But these young kids coming back have some appreciation from the country,” Davis said. “It’s different from Vietnam. They don’t understand what it feels like to be rejected by your country.”

McDonald, the Vietnam veteran from Whidbey, appreciates the welcome.

“The legislators who wrote this law did it to try to balance what happened in the past,” McDonald said. “They were doing something good. They really had their hearts in the right place.”

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Help for veterans

Vietnam veterans or their survivors needing information about benefits may call 800-562-2308 or email: benefits@dva.wa.gov.

The Everett Vet Center is at 3311 Wetmore Ave. Contact the center at 425-252-9701 or 877-927-8387.

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