When Vietnam Veterans meet each other, they often say “welcome home” rather than “thank you for your service.” There is a reason for that. Vietnam veterans were not welcomed home. At least not in a way that generates positive memories. I still remember when I arrived in LAX, after my last tour in Vietnam. I was exhausted, from spending three tours flying on combat missions and from the long flight home from Vietnam. I just wanted to go home. But there to greet me in the airport were some hippy looking malcontents who spit on me and called me a war criminal. I have talked to many Vietnam veterans who describe very similar circumstances. This didn’t have the impact on me they expected, I just laughed at them and walked away. I realized that these clowns had no concept regarding what was going on in Vietnam and they couldn’t begin to understand words like honor and courage. They were not worth one minute of my time.

When I finally got home, my next assignment was at Offutt AFB, hear Omaha, Nebraska. One of the first things we were told upon arrival at Offutt was to not wear our uniforms off base. We were told that would just make us a target. There were no parades, no celebrations, no welcome home parties. We just left a war zone 24 and returned home to people who didn’t have a clue regarding what we had seen and done. At best, people felt sorry for us.

I still remember a day, over 25 years later, when I was shopping at a store in San Rafael. I was wearing a jacket with a Vietnam Veteran patch my wife had sewn on the jacket. It was the first time I had ever worn anything identifying me as a Vietnam veteran. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was an older woman standing there, she said “thank you for you service.” I was absolutely stunned. It was the first time anyone thanked me for serving in Vietnam. I almost cried.

Things are better now. Vietnam veterans are treated with more respect. We are often thanked for our service. But we still never received the welcome home that other veterans had received when they came home from previous wars. I have another shirt, that I seldom wear. It says: “I am one of those guys you hated while I was fighting for you. I have forgiven you, but I have not forgotten.” I seldom wear this, because although this is accurate, it is not something I wish to dwell on.

A few years ago, I was in a car with a friend of mine, who unbeknownst to me had been an anti-war protestor. Somehow the subject of Vietnam came up, and I told him about some of the things I saw over there. I told him about the brutality of the NVA and the Vietcong, particularly toward civilians. I talked about interviewing some survivors of when the NVA and the Vietcong took over Hue, for a while, during the Tet offensive. Since I was a Vietnamese linguist and spoke Vietnamese, I was often the “only” American they had ever met who could understand what they needed to say.  This person who was normally very talkative didn’t say anything. Then very quietly he said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” I was too stunned to respond.

That is the real tragedy of the Vietnam War. Not that we didn’t come home to a hero’s welcome, just surviving, and making it home was more than enough. The real tragedy of Vietnam is that so many people remain oblivious to the evil we were fighting over there and the horrible price paid by the Vietnamese people who foolishly believed the United States was a trustworthy ally.

When I meet someone who escaped from Vietnam, often at great personal sacrifice and risk, and they learn I still speak some Vietnamese, they almost always want to tell me their story. Some of these stories are beyond shocking. I came to realize that the people who paid the highest price was not necessary those who fought in that war, but those who had to endure so much when we just quit on them. I remain stunned that so many of them love this country and are very loyal Americans. They would be more than justified in being bitter and angry. I sometimes apologize to them, on behalf of our government, for abandoning them. They always appreciate that. They did feel abandoned, but they felt something else too. A deep appreciation for the better life that awaited them if they could somehow make it to the United States.

When Donald Trump proposed having a big veterans day parade in Washington, D.C. that would have been really special. If he had invited all Vietnam Veterans to say “thank you for your service” we would have showed up in droves. The parade was cancelled, partly because Democrats opposed anything suggested by Donald Trump. It is too bad, because it could have been very special and might have healed a lot of wounds.

At least now there are few people who admit to being anti-war protestors. Most people do say “thank you for your service”, and they mean it. That is a good thing. But when you see a Vietnam Veteran, don’t say “thank you for your service,” although we always appreciate that. Say “welcome home.” It will mean more than you can possibly imagine.