Belated ‘welcome home’ party set for Vietnam vets

For war that started 50 years ago, homecoming for most troops was bitter

This Vietnam War Commemorative Partner Program lapel pin will be given to Vietnam War-era veterans at the Vietnam Veterans’ 50th Commemorative Welcome Home Banquet on Nov. 11 in the Kahili Golf Course Nahele Banquet Room in Waikapu. U.S. Rep. and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard will be doing the pinning for the veterans. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. CARLIN LESLIE photo

This Vietnam War Commemorative Partner Program lapel pin will be given to Vietnam War-era veterans at the Vietnam Veterans’ 50th Commemorative Welcome Home Banquet on Nov. 11 in the Kahili Golf Course Nahele Banquet Room in Waikapu. U.S. Rep. and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard will be doing the pinning for the veterans. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. CARLIN LESLIE photo

Longtime Maui veterans counselor and Vietnam veteran Bill Staton remembers being shunned by peers and even veteran organizations after returning from the war in Southeast Asia in 1970.

“It was hard,” he said.

Nineteen years old at the time, he and his then-wife were living in Washington, D.C., and tried socializing with other young couples after Staton returned from a yearlong combat tour in the Army during the Vietnam War.

“They would tolerate the fact I was there because my wife was there,” he remembers of his former wife’s friends.

Staton, who is a member of the Vietnam Veterans of Maui County, said he even was shunned by old high school classmates with whom he tried to reconnect. This was related to how the war had affected him.

This lapel pin for Vietnam War-era veterans was designed for the Congressional Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. U.S Air Force / Staff Sgt. ALEXANDRE MONTES photo

This lapel pin for Vietnam War-era veterans was designed for the Congressional Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. U.S Air Force / Staff Sgt. ALEXANDRE MONTES photo

The war that raged in the 1960s and early 1970s pitted North Vietnam’s communist government against South Vietnam’s democratic government, which was supported and propped up by the United States. Americans clashed over whether Americans should be dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia. There were demonstrations and the killing of four unarmed anti-war protesters at Kent State University by Ohio National Guard troops. The war brought down the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, who chose not to seek re-election in 1968.

More than 3 million people died in the conflict, including 58,000 Americans. More than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians, according to the History Channel’s website.

There were divisions among the newest veterans from Vietnam and the World War II and Korean War veterans, Staton recalled at the time he returned from Vietnam. Some veterans organizations did not welcome Vietnam veterans, downplaying their war as a conflict or police action.

The older veterans were not bad people, Staton said. Their combat experiences just differed.

With the nation so divided, returning Vietnam veterans were shunned, even spit on and discriminated against. They did not receive the glorious welcome of heroes experienced by their predecessors in World War II and the Korean War and those veterans later who came after in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

To give those Vietnam veterans the welcome home and honor they deserved, Staton and other Maui residents have put together a dinner and special pinning ceremony for Maui Vietnam-era veterans. Vietnam-era veterans will attend the event on Nov. 11, which also is Veterans Day, for free.

The Vietnam Veterans’ 50th Commemorative Welcome Home Banquet will be held at the Kahili Golf Course in Waikapu.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, will present a lapel pin designed for the Congressional Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War to each veteran. The back of the pin says: “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.” The pin is available to those who were on active duty in the armed forces from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975.

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration began with the presidential inaugural event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day, May 28, 2012, and concludes on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2025, by presidential proclamation, according to the Vietnam War Commemoration website.

“I think it’s never too late,” Staton said of honoring Vietnam-era veterans, who are now in their late 60s to late 70s. Staton is 68 and is a retired veterans counselor who worked for the state.

Another event organizer, Michelle Almeida, an Afghan-istan War veteran, said the idea of having a special event on Maui came about after Maui Veterans Council members heard about events on Oahu in May honoring Vietnam veterans.

Thinking Maui residents may not be able to attend the Oahu events, the council thought “we should do something here for them,” said Almeida, a Maui resident and chief warrant officer with the Hawaii Army National Guard.

Knowing how difficult it was for her to transition back into civilian life, Almeida understands how especially hard it was for Vietnam-era veterans who did not receive support, respect and appreciation when they returned. She called it “heartbreaking.”

“We feel like there is much better understanding in the community. We wanted to make sure our Vietnam veterans get that opportunity to get that respect and appreciation,” said Almeida, vice president of Na Koa Kahiko Wahine, an organization that unites, empowers and honors women in the military and veterans. Chelsea Fernandez, Na Koa’s president, is one of the original organizers for the event.

There has been a “very positive response from Vietnam veterans” with 125 already registered to attend, Almeida said. Veterans are now “willing to step forward and kind of be vulnerable and trust the community will accept them,” she said.

The organizers are still seeking sponsorships so more veterans can attend. This can be done through donations or buying a ticket to attend, which will help defray costs, Almeida said.

Stanton said it is important to honor all Vietnam War-era veterans and not only those in combat and on the ground in Vietnam. Over the years, he has learned how those serving in the military during the Vietnam era and not in the war zone also risked their lives and suffered great trauma.

He pointed to those in hospitals who took care of the badly wounded from the war. Those people saw and treated horrific injuries.

While it might sound like a safe assignment to be serving on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean during the Vietnam War, he said the USS Liberty “got blown out of the water.”

“It doesn’t mean they weren’t part of an effort to keep our nation safe,” Staton said. “It doesn’t mean they didn’t pay a hefty price for what they did. It was just different.”

Through the years, Staton has helped other veterans and spoken about his service in an effort to educate the public about the Vietnam War. He offered up an analogy to those trying to understand how to accept and honor those who served in that war.

He compared the Vietnam War veterans, many of whom were drafted into the services, to doctors. Military personnel were just performing their jobs. A person would not be upset at a doctor who performs a procedure that causes pain to the patient because the procedure is intended to save a life.

“I’m not going to be upset with the doctor that does the job,” he said. “They saved my life.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

VIETNAM VETERANS’ 50TH COMMEMORATIVE WELCOME HOME BANQUET

• When: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Nov. 11; check in begins at 4:30 p.m.

• Where: Kahili Golf Course, Nahele Banquet Room, Waikapu.

• Cost: Free for Vietnam-era veterans; non-Vietnam veterans, $80. Table sponsorship and donation opportunities available.

• Sign-up: Registration deadline for veterans is Monday; for non-Vietnam veterans, registration ends Wednesday. To register, call the Maui Vet Center at 242-8557.

• For more information. Contact (808) 258-3505 or nakoakahikowahine@gmail.com. Use same contact information to make a donation to help veterans attend the event.

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