Crowds around the Capitol building are a common sight with the Legislature in session, but the men and women who gathered on a nearby street corner weren’t there for politics.
Some of the men and women were old enough to be the mothers and fathers of the uniformed soldiers and sailors who joined them Thursday for the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day walk.
Their journey would take them around the Capitol building before ending at the Department of Justice building where a ceremony would be held in its atrium.
Larrey Lattin, 71, is an Army veteran who served in the Central Highlands of Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. He was a crew chief on a two-engine airplane, a Caribou, that supplied remote Special Forces camps.
No greeting awaited him when he returned to the United States after his three-year tour of duty.
“I was looked at pretty much with disdain,” he said.
“Nobody actually said anything to me, but I could see the looks,” he recalled of the glances and stares he received as a soldier in uniform.
Even still, he was happy to be home and rejoin his wife and their new baby.
“I got home in one piece and was happy to be here,” he said.
Mike Collins, 70, spent his time from 1966 to 1970 off the southern coast of Vietnam as a radar man on the USS Corry, a destroyer.
He returned to Helena, where he was born and raised, after his tour of duty and thought for a moment before he said he assessed his reception as “OK.”
“There were other, larger cities … it wasn’t good for my fellow veterans and shipmates,” said Collins, who explained he was just happy to be home.
People in Montana weren’t as negative about those who served in the war, he said.
Military service runs in his family. Two of his three brothers served, as did two of his three sons. An uncle died during World War II and his father served in the Army. After returning to the United States from the South Pacific, he stayed in Helena.
Steve Cook, 67, is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. He spoke as he walked. He was an amphibian tractor crewman serving near the dividing line between North and South Vietnam and brought supplies to two of the Marine Corps northern compounds.
Originally from Portland, Oregon, he’s been a Helena resident since 1983. He sums up how he felt when he returned with a single word: “lonely.”
“It just wasn’t a welcoming environment,” he said.
This year’s walk was about half the size of last year’s event, the first since it was authorized in 2011 by the Montana Legislature.
That event drew veterans from across the state. Even though there were fewer participants this year, Ray Read, Montana Military Museum director who helped organize it, wasn’t disappointed.
Some of those who participated last year felt vindicated and didn’t need to come, Read said.
“It needs to happen in Billings, in Valier, wherever there’s Vietnam veterans,” he said.
“Our ultimate goal was not to have a major Montana event in Helena but to have an event in Helena.”
Some of the walkers were alone. Others walked in twos and threes. This was a time of silence for many, broken with a bit of light banter by others.
Daniel Pocha, part of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, greeted walkers outside the atrium with a burning twist of dried plants. The line of people passed through a smoke of what Pocha said were sacred plants: cedar, sweet pine, sage, sweet grass and tobacco.
“It cleanses you,” he said. “It brings your hopes and prayers to the Creator.”
Inside the atrium, the veterans and those who accompanied them sat or stood. Perhaps 40 or more people filled the chairs that were reserved for them with white slips of paper.
“Forty-four years ago is that day that marked the return home of our nation’s Vietnam veterans,” Gov. Steve Bullock said as he addressed the crowd.
“Unfortunately these combat veterans didn’t receive the welcome home that generations of Americans did in previous wars. We owe all these brave soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen a debt of gratitude that indeed we can never truly repay.”
The experience of those who served was unique and made all the more difficult when they returned home to a country in turmoil and no services to honor them, Bullock continued.
Montana has the highest proportion of veterans in the nation, he said.
While calling for the sacrifices of those who served in Vietnam to never be forgotten, he asked that the sacrifices of those who have served elsewhere also not be forgotten.
Last year’s walk was the first time that many Vietnam veterans were told welcome home, Bullock said before adding, “it’s something that we must not do just once a year but indeed every day to ensure that our warriors understand that we appreciate the sacrifices that they made then and the continued sacrifices that so many carry on their shoulders even today.”
Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, the adjutant general of the Montana Army National Guard, disregarded his prepared remarks when he spoke.
The night before the event, he walked alone through the Carroll College campus before retracing his steps, he said.
He said he thought of the solitude of being a veteran “and I thought back to May of 1991 when I returned to Germany from Desert Storm and there was a great crowd there -- family, other citizens.”
He also recalled his return from duty in 2004 when he arrived in Kalispell. School had been dismissed for the day. The street, from the airport to the old armory, was lined with people welcoming them home.
As he walked through the college campus, he thought about how it would have been to return to what awaited Vietnam’s veterans: solitude, no greeting or scorn.
Among those who greeted the returning soldiers in 1991 and 2004 were the Vietnam veterans, Quinn said.
“They turned that scorn, that pain into a commitment of never again.”
“You are why America is saying never again and let’s never forget. My personal thanks to what you have done to improve this nation for our veterans,” Quinn said.
Lattin appreciated the welcome.
“Overall, the mood of the country has changed. Iraq and Afghanistan, they were treated much better,” he said.
“In retrospect, I’m proud of my service but there’s 58,000 dead boys and ladies that should have never been there,” Lattin said and added, “it was a mistake.”
This event was a recognition of the veterans for Collins who said this was also a time to join other veterans in recognizing the war.
“I had a lot of friends that gave their lives,” he said.
And the war’s legacy continues to claim those who fought there, Collins added and explained a veteran who was exposed to the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange died last week.
“It just continues. Some of them have just gone through a lot.”
“The acknowledgement of the Vietnam era has become a lot broader, a lot better known, a lot better accepted,” said Cook.
“There was a time when it was something that you never really admitted to, being a Vietnam veteran."
“It’s changing,” Cook said. “There’s more appreciation expressed from civilians … as opposed to the way it was immediately after the conflict.”