Instead, vets were often belittled and ridiculed for their involvement in the conflict, called “baby killers” and “imperialists.”
After Saigon fell in April 1975, it seemed as though Americans were ready to forget the long, lost war and the soldiers who waged it.
Meanwhile, many vets turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the memories of war. Others, having been exposed to Agent Orange, would develop cancer.
But with the support of organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), many vets are finally getting the respect they have long sought for the sacrifices they made.
This is evident at the VVA’s 15th National Convention, being held at the Silver Legacy Resort and Casino in Reno this week.
“That’s the main thing,” said John Riling, “the recognition.”
Riling, a former sergeant in the military police who did one tour of duty in Vietnam, was at the convention selling pins, patches and hats that identify veterans and their service to the country.
He said that many veterans are finally accepting their time in Vietnam and the convention helps bring together the camaraderie and brotherhood of the military.
“A lot are coming out of the woodwork,” Riling said.
For Riling, who currently serves as the vice-president of the Michigan State Council of the VVA, attending these conventions allows him to beat back the troubling memories of the war.
“This is my way of dealing with (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” he said.
Now that Vietnam veterans are entering retirement age, many are coming to terms with their Vietnam experience by traveling to the Southeast Asian country.
“Going back has been therapeutic for many,” said Bill McCullough, a former major in the Marines who enlisted during the Vietnam War and did tours of duty in Panama and Kuwait in the 1980s and ‘90s.
McCullough now works for Military Historical Tours, Inc., and travels with Vietnam veterans to places like Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and China Beach.
“It was powerful,” he said of recent trips.
Of course, the “shared experience” of the war is not exactly uniform among all vets.
Take Chris McIntyre, for example.
The vet wrote and directed a movie, “21 and a Wakeup,” in Vietnam in recent years and was at the convention selling copies to raise money for a number of charities, including the USO and VVA.
The movie recalls McIntyre’s own experience in Vietnam and focuses on the last major Army hospital to close in the waning days of the war and stars such Hollywood luminaries as Faye Dunaway and Ed Begley, Jr.
Despite having contracted cancer in recent years as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, Vietnam was not a total loss for McIntyre.
“I believed in what we were doing,” he said. “I didn’t believe in how we were going about it.”
The fact that many vets have overcome the trauma of war and even returned to the very place where the conflict occurred is a remarkable commentary on the power of forgiveness and the ways time heals pain.
“I love Vietnam,” McIntyre added. “I love the culture.”
The VVA’s 15th National Convention continues through Saturday at the Silver Legacy Resort and Casino in Reno. An awards banquet will close the convention Saturday night. Veterans have the opportunity to attend information sessions, learn about job and health care services available to them, hear keynote speakers and connect with fellow vets. For more information, visit www.vva.org.