The Chronicle: Long-deserved honors for Vietnam veterans
By ELIZABETH MACAULEY
Chronicle Staff Writer
WILLIMANTIC — It’s never too late to be honored.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, hosted a Vietnam War 50th commemoration ceremony at Windham Technical High School Thursday to recognize, honor and draw attention to veterans who served during the Vietnam era.
“Tonight is a way of saying thank you to make up for the omission of ‘thank you’ that took place during the Vietnam era,” Courtney said.
Veterans were called up one by one and given a pin and certificate commemorating their service to their country.
“It’s really important for the country to remember Vietnam veterans and that they did their duty,” Courtney said. “They didn’t get the thanks they should have.”
Kjell Tollefsen, a chief warrant officer in the Army, served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 as a helicopter pilot.
“Often, the poor reception upon returning home and dishonor was more hurtful than experiences in Vietnam,” Tollefsen said. “We were prepared for combat, but not prepared for coming home.”
“It also wasn’t like today with social media,” Tollefsen said. “We really had no idea what was happening back home.”
According to Tollefsen, soldiers were regularly called “baby killers” and spat at.
“I flew home into San Francisco,” Tollefsen said. “And no one would sit near you or talk to you.”
Maurice Simard, an Air Force sergeant, had the same experience flying into San Francisco when returning home.
“I spent the night on the chairs alone in the terminal,” Simard said. “Not one person talked to me.”
Dennis Roberts, a retired chief torpedo-man with the Navy, saw signs that were against soldiers, one reading “soldiers stay off the grass.”
“There were no parades, like today,” Roberts said. “Soldiers felt like second-class citizens.”
Readjusting to life back home was also difficult.
“War is very personal,” Tollefsen said. “Many guys had a hard time adjusting when back at home.”
“The first time you see someone die in front of you, that’s personal,” Tollefsen said, speaking from experience. “You carry baggage with you in a secret place for a long time.”
According to Tollefsen, many soldiers have memories they don’t share with anyone, even their families.
Applying for jobs was also difficult for the veterans, he said.
“You couldn’t put that (you) were a veteran on job applications because people thought veterans were crazy,” Tollefsen said. “This made getting jobs difficult for many.”
Despite challenges faced, the veterans appreciated the ceremony.
“It’s nice to be honored,” Simard said. “It’s been buried for so many years. It wasn’t until the war in Iraq and Afghanistan came to the forefront that everyone was like, ‘What about Vietnam?’”
For Roberts, the camaraderie of the veterans assembling for the ceremony was one the best parts of the evening.
“They felt it and lived it, not just in battle but coming home as well,” Roberts said.