JULY 7, 2015, CASPER, Wyo. – Tears flowed freely as the words echoed in the vastness that was the Casper Events Center.
Seven hundred veterans sat, listening, taking the words in, letting them settle in their ears and hearts.
Repeatedly, that phrase was said during the four-day Wyoming Vietnam Veterans Reunion in Casper, Wyoming. It was a well-attended event, with friends and family members joining their loved ones who had served in Vietnam. But, unlike many of today’s returning service members who return home to welcome receptions and gyms full of cheering loved ones, the Vietnam era veteran never received that treatment.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S.’s initial involvement of combat troops in the Southeast Asia war, the Wyoming Veterans Commission, in partnership with the Department of Defense and its national commemoration program, organized the first state sponsored Vietnam veteran reunion, with welcome home as the theme.
“We learned from most Vietnam era veterans, their service was never acknowledged and they definitely were never welcomed home,” said Larry Barrtebort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, whose agency spearheaded organizing the event. “That generation of veterans is directly responsible for ensuring our post-9/11 veterans receive the welcome home they so richly deserve.
“Welcome Home was the natural theme.”
For the nearly 700 veterans in attendance, most returned home to cold, harsh realities. When Saigon fell in 1975, the Vietnam veteran’s service faded into the history books, much like Saigon and South Vietnam, renamed Ho Chi Minh City and consolidated into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, respectively.
“We didn’t have a welcome home when we got home,” said Lee Alley, a Vietnam veteran and veterans commission commissioner. “When I came home, I immediately went back to the University of Wyoming and the veteran wasn’t accepted on campus. I basically hid my veteran identity. You couldn’t talk about it on campus.”
The reunion’s mission was to bring together as many Wyoming state veterans as possible and give them a proper welcome home.
“The state’s Wyoming Veterans Welcome Home Day law was signed by Gov. [Matt] Mead in 2011 and each year a team has visited three to four towns with a welcome home ceremony,” said Barrtelbort. “We learned these local events were very well received and wanted to replicate that on a statewide basis.”
Besides a welcome home ceremony, presided over by Gov. Mead and other dignitaries, there was a benefits fair, memorial service, parade and a dinner with special guest, war correspondent Joe Galloway. It was an event focused on remembering the past, and also cherishing the service of so many Wyoming veterans.
“Our planning team truly had one focus, keep the veterans in mind. The Vietnam veterans on our team ensured we had something for everyone, but also keeping true to the mission of honoring the veteran,” said Barrtelbort.
There had been previous reunions, but this was the first event that was state sponsored. The reviews were positive.
“I was amazed at the scope of the Wyoming celebration and at the turnout of Vietnam veterans — nearly a thousand of them,” said Joe Galloway, co-author of the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” and guest speaker. “I was proud to be invited to participate and speak to and for those Vietnam veterans.”
From June 4-7, veterans visited with each other, sharing stories of patrols through rice paddies, missions on the Huey helicopter and remembering the spray of the South China Sea on U.S. naval ships. It was a great time to rehash old memories that possibly had laid dormant since the image of Huey’s lifting off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975.
“It was past my expectations, the thank you from the vets and families,” said Alley, who also helped organize the event. “From the families, we got thank you’s, I was told My husband changed before my eyes at the event.’”
The reunion also gave the local community an opportunity to be involved in welcoming home these veterans. During the parade, after a long line of vehicles, motorcycles and military trucks passed, a large group of walking Vietnam veterans were applauded loudly and cheered. Also family members were warmly invited to all events, so that they could witness and hear some of the stories that may have never been told. The interest from the community was evident after the first day of registration.
Expectations were modest from the planning committee, with numbers of attendees expected to be in the 400s. However, that estimate grew quickly.
“Initially, we had 380 vets register with about 400 family members,” Barttelbort said. “We had another 300 vets and untold number of family members walk-up [to registration]. We knew we would have walk-ups, but never in those numbers.”
Even with the increased amount of veterans coming, the event rolled forward. As veterans throughout the weekend signed a big map on the floor, documenting their tours overseas and inspected military equipment they once used years before at the Wyoming Veterans Museum, the message remained the same.