Giving Vietnam Veterans a Second Chance to Come Home

Post-9/11 vets are helping an older generation experience a more friendly homecoming.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Oct 10, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

In August 1971, Terry Sorrells came home to southern Indiana from the Vietnam War and asked his dad if he wanted to go squirrel hunting. The season had just started, and it was a pastime they’d shared before he left for the war. So they took their shotguns, walked to the back of their farm, and parked themselves under a tree.

They saw a squirrel on the tree’s trunk, but it scampered around to the other side after it heard them approach. Sorrells’ dad asked him if he knew why the squirrel had run away. “Well, Pop, we scared him,” Sorrells recalled telling him. “He looked at me and he said, ‘I’ll tell you why he did. He wants to live just as much as we do.’ ”

That moment ended Sorrells’ hunting career. “We both got up, cracked open our shotguns and took the shells out, and we walked back home.”

His father, a World War II veteran, had a different sense about his son after he came back from Vietnam. The two vets formed a bond they’d never quite had before. “He knew that I didn’t really want to hurt anything after I came home,” Sorrells said. “Everything else pales in comparison when humans are hunting each other.”

Today, many post-9/11 veterans are forging connections with those who fought in the Vietnam War, not unlike the bond Sorrells shared with his father that summer. These intergenerational friendships have spawned a wave of ceremonies around the country that are intended to give Vietnam vets a second, friendlier homecoming, like the ones received by those who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan 45 years later.

“If you look today you’ll see news footage of veterans returning from overseas, walking through the airport and being applauded. I had a [Vietnam] veteran here in the county talk about being spit on when he returned in uniform,” said Brad Bough, director of the Veterans Service Office in Indiana’s Lawrence County. “It’s high time we welcomed them back the same way we have welcomed back veterans of other conflicts.”

To that end, he is planning an event to honor the anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end in May 2015, bringing together local veterans of all conflicts and members of the community. The belated-homecoming movement is spreading across the country, with events cropping up from Washington to Tennessee and from Alaska to New Hampshire.

Bough, who served in Afghanistan, recalled the warmth he felt going through U.S. customs on his way home. Although he wasn’t in uniform, a glance at his military ID card was enough to produce a “welcome home” or a “thank you for your service.”

The reception Sorrells received back in 1971 was a bit different. Unlike many veterans in larger metropolitan areas, he didn’t get the typical caustic response in rural Indiana. Nor did he experience Bough’s end of the spectrum.

“We just bowed our heads and put on that thousand-yard stare and went on with our lives when we came back to the world from ’Nam,” he said. “We tried to forget it and bury it.” In his Midwestern community, the war simply wasn’t up for discussion.

Trying to forget and bury the experience of being in combat continues to have lingering negative effects for many veterans, in addition to the common physical ailments many veterans endure postwar. In Portland, Ore., Casey Curry works with the Returning Veterans Project to provide pro bono mental health and somatic services for post-9/11 vets. As a veteran of Afghanistan, Curry herself understands how simply arriving home won’t automatically spur the healing process.

“When we come back, we don’t necessarily know that we need to seek some help. You get massage, acupuncture, and you may relax enough to realize that there are issues you might need some help with,” she said. “That’s very key for veterans and their family members.”

Curry also acknowledged the bond that has formed between Vietnam-era veterans and her own generation. While their treatment when arriving back in the U.S. differed, she said there are many similarities between what the two generations experienced in combat: “It’s really easy to sit down with a Vietnam-era vet and talk with them and relate to their experiences, and for them to relate to ours.”

As Sorrells left the grocery store recently, a young man grabbed his hand in the parking lot. He noticed the hat Sorrells wore, indicating he served in Vietnam; the man thanked him for his service.

“I told him, ‘Thank you, you don’t know what that means,’ ” he recalled. The man had served in the Special Forces in Afghanistan, he told Sorrells, and was trying to decide whether or not to reenlist.

“We talked a long, long time about it. I hope I helped him some, I think he helped me some,” Sorrells said. “And he voluntarily said, ‘I know you guys didn’t get the accolades and welcome home that we’ve gotten, and I hate that.’ ”

For Sorrells, the anniversary event in May is as much about fostering these kinds of conversations with recent veterans as it is a chance to make peace with those who expressed opposition to his service back in the 1970s. In particular, he hopes the event will be an opportunity to move beyond the tension once felt between veterans like himself, who were drafted and served, and those who dodged the draft and headed to Canada.

“We’re not looking for pats on the back, or accolades, or anything of that nature. We just want to bury the hatchet, forgive and forget,” Sorrells said. “If it serves to lighten one heart just a little, clear one mind just a tad, then it’s all been a worthwhile event.”