By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
There were few, if any, confetti-strewn parades that were held around the country to give U.S. servicemen and women a heartfelt “welcome back” when they returned home from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s.
Instead, the reception was often cold, if not hostile, for veterans who were treated as outcasts amid a brutal war that divided the country at the time, one Vietnam vet recalled.
“Some Americans were so blinded by the anti-war movement they could not separate the war from the warrior. There must be someone to blame for this disaster, and it was us. Anyone in a uniform,” said Mark Lloyd, a Vietnam veteran who served in 1969.
But in dramatic contrast to the perception that they were pariahs in the 1960s and ’70s, Lloyd and other Vietnam veterans were hailed as heroes Wednesday during Sea Isle City’s annual ceremony commemorating National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
“Our thanks cannot be expressed often enough, and I hope that all our Vietnam veterans know that this community is very grateful for what you did for our nation – and that you will always have our respect,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said in keynote remarks.
Lloyd, who also spoke at the ceremony, delivered emotional remarks that focused on the sacrifices Vietnam veterans made during the war and the hardships they experienced after they returned home.
“When you got home, sure your family, immediate friends, they were happy to see you but society as a whole felt a little different, to the point where you couldn’t wait to get that uniform off and grow some hair,” he said of the transition from military to civilian life.
“And in the end, some of us found ourselves on the side of the protesters, but we knew the difference between the war and the warrior,” he continued.
Lloyd, 72, now serves as the commander of VFW Post 1963 in Sea Isle. In Vietnam, he served with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division and suffered serious wounds in 1969.
During the ceremony Wednesday, Lloyd’s voice cracked with emotion as he looked out at his fellow veterans sitting in the crowd at Sea Isle’s Veterans Park. He concluded his remarks with a touching sentiment.
“To my fellow veterans, I thank you for your service to this great nation. To my fellow Vietnam veterans, I offer you three simple words, welcome home, brother!”
A crowd of about 70 people attended the ceremony. Desiderio said he learned from Lloyd that Sea Isle was among only a few communities in New Jersey that celebrated National Vietnam War Veterans Day on Wednesday.
Desiderio asked all of the veterans in the audience to stand and be recognized. The crowd showered them with applause.
In his remarks, Desiderio said National Vietnam War Veterans Day is an important way to recognize the men and women who responded to the call “I will serve” and to acknowledge the indignities they endured from the American public during the war.
“There was, however, something else that many Vietnam veterans also had to face – something that never should have occurred. I am, of course, speaking about the disrespect many veterans were confronted with when they returned home from battle – disrespect from the very people they went to war to protect,” he said.
At the same time, Desiderio noted that Americans must confront what he called “a dark chapter in our nation’s history” to “make amends to those who were treated wrongly, and also ensure that it never happens again to future warriors.”
“We must always remember that the job of those who serve in our nation’s military is to answer the call of duty for the sake of our nation – and it is the job of those of us on the home front to support our troops and our veterans,” he said.
Patti Lloyd, Mark Lloyd’s wife who is president of VFW Post 1963’s Auxiliary, also spoke during the ceremony. She recalled that the country initially treated the Vietnam veterans with “rejections.”
“Vietnam veterans returned to a society that seemed not to care about them,” she said.
She noted, though, that the country’s perception of Vietnam vets gradually began to change – replacing the rejections with “sympathy and gratitude.”
Echoing the sentiments of her husband, Patti Lloyd concluded her remarks with a simple, but poignant tribute.
“Thank you for your service, and more important, welcome home,” she told the veterans.