Continuing to look back just a bit before my upcoming third mobilization, I wrote the following article in March, 2005. I would ask that everyone remember their warriors during this holiday season. It is because of them that we will celebrate this Christmas in peace and safety.
U. S. EMBRACES WAR VETS
SFC Chuck Grist
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
March 22, 2005
Walking through an airport in California in 1971, I was proud to be in my uniform as a returning veteran of Vietnam. My thoughts raced ahead to the moment when I would see my parents, my sister and my grandmother standing in the Orlando terminal, their arms and hearts open for my homecoming. The girlfriend had moved on, but such is life.
What happened next was unexpected, and I didn’t know how to react as a couple of young people walked up and spat on the floor at my feet. It was disconcerting, but it wasn’t over. As I walked to my next flight in Atlanta, I heard a voice in the crowd behind me say, “Murderer.”
Although I had seen and endured a great deal as a young infantry lieutenant, I was not a murderer. I was also not prepared for rejection by some of the very people I had been fighting for. Ultimately, only my family and a couple of close friends welcomed me home. I took my uniform off that first night and did not put it on again for nine years.
Then, early in 2003, the war in Iraq began. I stood once again in uniform at an airport, this time near Fort Stewart, Ga. I was now an Army Reserve sergeant with many years of service. It was an unexpected surprise when two women came up and hugged me, thanking me for being in the Army. Later, an elderly woman saw my uniform and walked up to me. I immediately recognized her British accent as she grabbed my hand and said, “I’m not sure if I agree with the war, but we’ve always loved the Yanks.”
As a veteran of both Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom, I believe I have a unique perspective. While some Vietnam vets had difficulty adjusting after that war long ago, most of us have adapted quite well, thank you. We don’t live under overpasses with “Work for Food” signs, and we are active, contributing members of society. We have accomplished much, even without that welcome home three decades ago. Still, the unpleasant memories remain.
The first Gulf War re-awakened America’s understanding that war must not be confused with the warrior. Political differences should never affect our appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the members of our armed services. They don’t fight for Democrats or Republicans. They fight for their buddies, their families and because they refuse to let the terrorists win. There is no room for politics in a foxhole.
Warriors must have the support of their fellow citizens. Fortunately, in this war on terror, Americans have reached out in many ways to offer encouragement to our military men and women throughout the world. They have also shed tears with the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
When I returned from Iraq last fall, our plane stopped to refuel in Maine. As we walked into the terminal in our desert uniforms, grateful to be on American soil once again, our hearts stopped as we saw dozens of people waiting to welcome us home with signs, hugs and pats on the back. Many of these wonderful people were Vietnam vets.
The young soldiers took it all in stride. They laughed and happily returned the handshakes and hugs. This was the status quo for them and they did not know how different it could have been.
I was overwhelmed and knew that I had finally come full circle as a Vietnam veteran. Reaching the crowd with a lump in my throat, I saw the smiles of people I didn’t know and felt the hugs and the pats on my back. It felt so good to be a soldier.
SFC Chuck Grist