Fort Hood, Central Texas welcome Vietnam vets home
May 21, 2012
FORT HOOD, Texas (May 21, 2012) -- As Beto Reyna stood on Sadowski Field in front of III Corps Headquarters May 21, he put some demons to rest and continued a healing process 43 years in the making.
Fort Hood kicked off Phantom Warrior Week, a week-long celebration of service, with a long overdue homecoming ceremony and a bit of closure.
Reyna and nearly 700 of his fellow Vietnam veterans were welcomed home by more than 2,000 friends, family and Fort Hood community members.
It was a heroes' welcome a long time in the coming, and something III Corps and Fort Hood Commanding General Lt. Gen. Don Campbell Jr. has wanted to do since he took command last year.
"This has been an easy call," Campbell said about hosting the ceremony. "It's one of the things I wanted to do."
The son of a Vietnam veteran, Campbell said he didn't expect to get as emotional as he did when he saw the buses full of Vietnam veterans pull up.
"It hit me right in the gut," the general said. "I hope this gives them some closure."
For the general, welcoming the veterans home, even more than 40 years later, was a way to thank them for their service.
"You fulfilled a time-honored duty to serve our nation," Campbell said. "You deployed to the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to defend freedom and our way of life."
For many of the Vietnam veterans, the ceremony marked the end of the disrespect and the cruelty they faced when they returned home from the unpopular conflict.
"It was a good feeling, good appreciation," Vietnam veteran Ernest T. Knox said. "It goes to show that if you wait, good things will happen."
Knox served 10 months in the jungle before being sent home with a high fever. He came home to Killeen to only his family and a few friends.
His story is not unfamiliar to veterans of that era.
When he came home to McAllen from Vietnam in May 1968, Reyna came home alone to a party at his parents' home. He pushed aside Vietnam, put a lid on it, and it cost him dearly, Reyna said.
He struggled with post traumatic stress for 40 years before seeking help at the Veterans Administration.
"I got help and it made a lot of difference," Reyna said.
Reyna's friend, Retired Col. Al Hernandez, an infantry officer and helicopter pilot who served three tours in Vietnam, came to the ceremony because he was curious.
He was pleased by what he saw.
"It was beyond what I thought, so well planned and executed," Hernandez said. "It was also pretty heavy because I never got anything like this. We were isolated, treated like second-class citizens back then."
The retired colonel who served three tours in Vietnam and was shot down 13 times, said the day left an empty spot for those who didn't make it home.
There were reminders and recognition of those who never made it home and those killed in action in Vietnam.
Campbell offered a moment of silence for the more than 2,000 still missing in action from the war.
Across the street from III Corps Headquarters sat the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, an 85 percent replica of the Wall in Washington D.C. that holds the names of more than 58,000 U.S. service members who died in action in Vietnam or who remain unaccounted for.
"I lost a lot of pilots," Hernandez said. "They were all somebody's father, husband, uncle and son."
On the minds of the veterans were also those who made it home with them but could not make it to the ceremony.
"I had a big lump in my throat thinking about my comrades who came home with me and didn't get to see this," Reyna said.
III Corps and Fort Hood senior-enlisted leader Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur L. Coleman Jr. said the message conveyed with the welcome home ceremony was a powerful one.
"It's important that the American public recognizes their service," he said. "This was a great opportunity to shakes vets' hands. I saw a lot of our Soldiers hugging veterans."
For many Vietnam veterans, the ceremony was the first time they were thanked for their service.
"No one ever shook my hand, handed me a flower and said 'job well done,'" former III Corps and Fort Hood Commanding General retired Gen. Robert Shoemaker said.
More than 40 years later, on a field on a post he once commanded, the retired general got some closure.
"I feel personally that I'm finally home," Shoemaker said.
When he received the heroes' welcome that he and his fellow Vietnam veterans deserved, he said the ceremony helped put to rest residual demons from Vietnam.
"I finally feel welcomed home," he said.