LAS CRUCES – When Emilio Angel came home in 1964 after fighting in Vietnam, no one welcomed him. No one said thank you. No one shook his hand. No one took a heartfelt photo of him reuniting with his loved ones.
Angel was one of about 150 people — many of whom were Vietnam veterans — who attended the 8th annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event in Veteran’s Memorial Park Saturday morning.
At the time of the Vietnam War, many Americans were angry, protesting in the streets against United States presence in the war. Many resented the draft, and others saw no moral standing for the war at all, and they took it out on the soldiers.
“Vietnam veterans, when we came back, we were treated as if we had started the war and went up just to kill people, but that’s not what we were there for. We were there to help South Vietnam break away from the north and try to help them become a democracy,” Angel said. “That was our purpose.”
Angel, who served in the Navy from 1960 to 1964, said he and many who served with him voluntarily joined the military and “did what our country asked us to do.”
During the invocation, Larry Orvis, a veteran, described the difficulties of war at that time, telling how if they wanted to live, they would wake up and shoot back.
“Long ago we found ourselves walking through the rice valley and the jungles and highlands of Vietnam, many of us were only 18,” Orvis said.
Excited for their return home, Orvis said Vietnam soldiers were met with a different reality.
“Finding that all was not good, finding that reality was not the same. No welcome home,” Orvis said. “For so many it was so hard to accept, like they hated us. May we never let this happen to another generation again.”
Rich Coffel, New Mexico Veterans Business Outreach Center director, recounted his unwelcoming return to American soil. He said that when he arrived at Travis Air Force base, he was greeted with name-calling as he was spit on and had eggs thrown at him.
“It wasn’t a pleasant time,” Coffel said.
Saturday’s event, which is held nationwide, is an attempt to right some of the wrongs of how Vietnam vets were treated upon their return.
“I want to say ‘Welcome home Vietnam vets,’ something we weren’t told. I want to say ‘Thank you for your service,’” Coffel said.
The day consisted of the raising of the Garrison flag, a wreath-laying ceremony on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the reading of all 398 Vietnam veterans from New Mexico who did not return home; 21 of them from Las Cruces.
The event also provided lunch and allowed the attendees to meet, talk, exchange stories and, hopefully, get some healing.
Ret. Command Sgt. Major Chars Martin said he hopes that with the event people will realize that even though the Vietnam War was controversial, they served their country just like all other soldiers have.
“Even though it was unpopular at the time, Vietnam did mean a lot to the people that served there,” he said.