When Vietnam veterans like Ken Altazan returned home from the war in 1973, they weren’t welcomed back to the U.S. with open arms like veterans of past wars.
Because the tragedies of the Vietnam War were often misreported and misunderstood, Altazan said, the veterans paid a price. They were looked down upon when they returned home to a politically divided country. They were, Altazan said, the unpopular veterans.
“For years, we hid as veterans,” said Altazan, 69, a Marine Corps sergeant who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1970. Quoting former President Richard Nixon, he said, “No event in U.S. history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War.”
Altazan was the keynote speaker who joined about 40 fellow Vietnam veterans Saturday morning for Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum.
The event served as a proper welcome-back ceremony to honor those men and women who served in Vietnam but were not well received when they returned home.
“Vietnam veterans did not get the welcome back they deserved,” said Alejandra “Alex” Juan, executive director of the USS Kidd. “We want to make sure these veterans and their families know we appreciate their service.”
Juan said veterans returning from Vietnam were not embraced and celebrated like the veterans of World War II or the Korean War.
“War is not pretty. They never are,” Altazan said. “We were sent to do a dirty job. … All we have ever asked for is thanks — to heal our wounds, both physical and mental.”
In October, Altazan was awarded a Navy Cross, the second-highest medal the military bestows for extraordinary heroism, second only to the Medal of Honor.
The U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2011 to provide Vietnam veterans the chance at a proper welcome home, and in 2012, the USS Kidd began its welcome home event. The event is in its fifth year, and the local organization has become an official commemorative partner of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration.
The event has grown to host more than 300 people, Juan said, though this year, it was dampened by the rain and coinciding St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The ceremony began at 11 a.m. with the keynote speaker and a distribution of commemorative Vietnam War pins to veterans in attendance, followed by a reception with food, drinks and music by Quiana Lynell and the Lush Life. Sheet Metal Workers, Local 214, sponsored the event, and a number of veteran and military organizations attended.
“I enjoyed every bit of it,” said Joe Jenkins, 74, a Vietnam veteran and a Purple Heart and Silver Star recipient. “The speaker was very, very good.”
Jenkins has attended the welcome-home ceremony every year and said he appreciates the recognition.
Although he didn’t experience the negative backlash when returning home, thanks to his supportive family, Jenkins said he hopes people realize the war was not caused by the veterans and that they were just doing their jobs.
Garrick St. Romain, 42, a member of the Louisiana National Guard and a veteran who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011, has attended the welcome-home event for the past three years.
He said he’s glad to see Vietnam veterans get the respect and appreciation they deserve because they are often the first to return that respect and appreciation to the next generation of veterans.
“When we come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, Vietnam veterans are always there to welcome the troops,” St. Romain said. “They make sure we have a proper welcome home.”