When U.S. Marine Thomas Morrow returned stateside from Vietnam after sustaining a debilitating combat wound to his leg, he attended a party his first night at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center.
“I was a life saver in Vietnam, a Navy hospital corpsman with the Third Marine Division,” related Morrow, 65, who was attending the fifth annual “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans” ceremony at the Capitol complex’s Mazurek Justice Center Atrium. “Anyway, I struck up a conversation with an attractive young gal at the hospital party, and we were getting along great. Until she asked me how my leg got buggered up.”
Morrow recalled the woman saying she thought maybe it was due to a motorcycle wreck or a skiing accident.
“But when I told her it was a war injury, her attitude immediately changed. And she called me a murderer,” he said, the hurt of those words showing in this brave man’s eyes 46 years later. “That’s why an event like this is so long overdue for some of us.”
Morrow was among about 55 people – most of them Vietnam vets – who marched around the Capitol building before attending the fourth annual ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of those who returned home from the Vietnam War.
Ray Read, “Appreciation Day” master of ceremonies, along with fellow Vietnam veteran Pat McCann, worked with the 62nd Montana Legislature to get House Bill 255, titled “The Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day,” passed into law in 2011. In 2016, Read and McCann were instrumental in organizing the inaugural Appreciation Day at the state Capitol.
Read noted that 268 Montanans were killed in action or died from non-hostile causes in Vietnam during the war, and that there are currently about 32,300 Vietnam veterans (men and women) residing in the Treasure State.
The event, which was sponsored in part by the local Daughters of the Revolution group, was kicked off by Chaplain Karen Semple, who gave the invocation and read the prayer Chief Seattle gave at the dedication of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in 1982. Charmaine Lindgren sang the National Anthem, followed by Brigadier Gen. Jeff Ireland’s reading of the Appreciation Day proclamation.
“We cannot change the past,” said Ireland, referring to the mistreatment of our armed forces returning from Southeast Asia 45-plus years ago. “But we can learn from the past, and we can make sure it never happens again.”
Keynote speaker Command Sgt. Major Bob Bennett, U.S. Army (retired), related a brief profile of his combat service with the 336 Assault Helicopter Co. in Vietnam (1968-69), and subsequent 37-year career in the Montana Army National Guard Aviation.
“Coming home to Medicine Lake and Dillon, I never experienced any putdowns or ridiculing for serving in Vietnam,” recounted Bennett, who served the final nine years of his career as the State Command Sergeant Major. “Sure I saw it on TV, but never did I personally experience any of that; which I think is a credit to the great state we live in, and the quality of people who live here.
“However, I did get some strange looks from people for my reactions whenever there was a loud boom or sirens going off.”
Bennett, whose Hueys were shot down four times in Vietnam, told of his experiences years later after “9/11.”
“When they started activating the Guard for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our country had a totally different attitude and outlook toward our soldiers and the military,” he said. “I’ll never forget the sendoffs and welcome homes our soldiers and airmen received as they deployed and returned, they are amazing.
“It is truly the right thing for our citizens and communities to do, and means so much to our soldiers, airmen and their families.”
Also among those in attendance were Chris Warren and Ken Inabnit.
Warren, 69, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1968-72, described Appreciation Day as a coming out for local Vietnam veterans.
“Truthfully, no, I never experienced any extreme abuse. The Air Force was lucky because you were sent home by yourself and not in a group, and you could sneak back into the country almost unnoticed,” said Warren, who served with 8th Aerial Port Squadron, 7th Air Force, at Tan Son Nhut AFB near Saigon in 1970-71. “The only trouble I had was visiting friends who were back on college campuses, when they found out who you were.”
Warren recalled hearing “the horror stories” of returning soldiers, and of how they were sometimes spit on.
“No wonder they didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “The nice thing about this homecoming appreciation, it’s getting the Vietnam vets out …. I worked in my profession with people for 20 years, before I started finding out they were in Vietnam, too.”
Inabnit, 70, spent 40 years in the military, retiring as the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army (CASA).
“I served one more year than Bob (Bennett), so we’ve spent most of our Guard service working with each other,” Inabnit said. “I was an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1970-71, and I was a fixed win pilot for OIF/OEF (Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom), when I was 58 years old.
“I’ve had the privilege of serving in both Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia, so I got to witness first-hand the difference of coming home then and now.”
Inabnit described how back then, when you hit the airport, “the first thing you did was get out of uniform” and disappear. This last time was “just the opposite – every place we landed,” they were welcomed home.
“These (appreciation events) are awesome, and it’s just really nice to see everybody here,” he said.
And no doubt it was also nice for Morrow and others in attendance to hear Inabnit’s longtime co-worker, Bennett, conclude his speech with those two belated – yet impactful – words; “Welcome home.”
Curt Synness, a Navy veteran, can be reached at 594-2878 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR.