By Donald Wittkowski
There were no cheering crowds or confetti-strewn parades to greet Michael Rodgers when he returned home in 1968 from his yearlong tour in Vietnam serving as an Army combat photographer.
In fact, there was no welcome of any kind. Even in his own Philadelphia neighborhood in those days, he was treated by many people as a pariah. They would simply walk by him without even acknowledging his presence, Rodgers recalled.
But what may have hurt him the most was the cold reception he received from a Philadelphia VFW post when he tried to join.
“I was not permitted to be a member,” he said bluntly, explaining that the post simply did not want Vietnam veterans at that time.
All of those painful memories came rushing back to Rodgers during the Veterans Day ceremony Saturday in Sea Isle City. But this time, Rodgers was warmly embraced by the people of Sea Isle, where he now lives.
“It sort of takes the sting out of all the disrespect I encountered so many years ago,” said Rodgers, a 71-year-old retired bank executive.
In a poignant moment during the Veterans Day ceremony, Rodgers and fellow Vietnam veteran R. Bruce Land, a state Assemblyman, finally received their long-overdue homecoming, including thunderous applause and a standing ovation from hundreds of people gathered inside the former Sea Isle City Public School.
In honor of their service, Rodgers and Land were given handmade “Quilts of Valor” from a South Jersey organization that is part of a national campaign that pays tribute to military veterans of all wars.
“I know it’s been a long time, but today’s the day we’re going to say, ‘Welcome home,’” Liz Barrett, the chairwoman of the South Jersey Quilts of Valor Foundation, said to Rodgers and Land.
Barrett pointed out the stark differences in the way the country treats its veterans as heroes these days, but viewed them as outcasts during the tumultuous Vietnam era.
Rodgers, his voice tinged with emotion, spoke of the insults and hostility he encountered when he returned home from Vietnam.
He thanked Barrett and the audience for helping to bridge the divide by recognizing the sacrifices made by veterans of the Vietnam war. In an interview later, he acknowledged that some of the somber memories of his post-Vietnam days “still burn.”
Land, meanwhile, served with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971. The 67-year-old Land, who lives in Vineland, was re-elected on Tuesday to his Assembly seat in the First Legislative District, which encompasses Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties.
Land told the audience that it has been 46 years since he last wore his Army uniform. He said he felt humbled and honored to receive recognition during Veterans Day.
“All these years later, it still means a lot to me,” said Land, fighting back tears.
At the start of the ceremony, Mayor Leonard Desiderio asked all of the veterans in the audience to stand and be recognized. The crowd showered them with applause.
One World War II veteran, Bill Johnson, who turns 97 on Nov. 19, was serenaded with the strains of “Happy Birthday.” Johnson, who lives in Sea Isle, led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance during the Veterans Day ceremony.
In keynote remarks, Desiderio praised veterans for all the sacrifices they have made and the role they have played in protecting the nation’s constitutional freedoms while facing “the horrors of war firsthand.”
He added that because of a strong U.S. military, Americans sleep soundly under “a blanket of freedom that is the envy around the world.”
“Yes, their sacrifices are many and, yes, we have many reasons to be grateful for our veterans,” the mayor said.
At the same time, Desiderio stressed that the transition for veterans back to civilian life “is not an easy one.”
Poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse are some of the problems that continue to haunt veterans, along with a suicide rate that is staggering, Desiderio noted.
He called on political leaders and the rest of America to join together to help the veterans overcome their difficulties.
“This isn’t a political issue. It’s an American issue,” he said. “If ever there was a bipartisan cause, this should be it.”