PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, California -- "I am one of you, and you are part of me." With those words, retired Command Sgt. Major Sidney Williams welcomed his fellow Vietnam War-era veterans to a Presidio of Monterey ceremony thanking them for their service May 13.
"We stand together as members of the brotherhood, and we have stood together for 50 years," said Williams, chairman of the Monterey County Military & Veterans Advisory Commission.
The ceremony was part of a national commemoration directed by Congress to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and dedicated to recognizing the service and sacrifices made by veterans of that era.
The ceremony took place during Language Day, an annual open house that brings thousands of local high school students, teachers, and members of the public to the Army installation.
Such public recognition would have been almost unthinkable in the years immediately following their service, several Vietnam veterans in attendance said.
"For a long time, a lot of my friends and neighbors didn't know I was a veteran," said Juan Sanchez, a Vietnam War veteran from Salinas.
That began changing about twelve years ago, as he got more involved in the veteran community and found public opinion of veterans becoming more favorable during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Recognition of the service and sacrifice of veterans from those conflicts raises the visibility of Vietnam War veterans, and is helping to heal old wounds, he said.
"It's important to me, not for me but for the ones that didn't come back. To make sure they're remembered," Sanchez said.
John Gay, a Purple Heart recipient from Vietnam, echoed those sentiments.
"I did what everybody else did, for the first ten to fifteen years. But as time went on, (veterans) organizations started drawing us in," he said.
Gay still carries some emotional scars from his service, and some shrapnel in his hip.
More public recognition of the Vietnam War and its veterans helps those who struggle with their own injuries, whether from that war or more recent conflicts, he said.
"We went through the fight, with PTSD and post-traumatic stress, for these young guys ... A lot of us stayed in the closet for a long time," Gay said.
"I hope they learn, you can't avoid it," he said.