By Chad L. SimonAugust 24, 2017
As service members return to Fort Riley, Kansas, from deployments today, they are greeted with songs from the 1st Infantry Division Band, excited spouses, family members and lots of welcome-home signs. Some even return to see a newborn child for the first time.
Five decades ago, that was not the homecoming a service member received after returning from Vietnam. At best, a service member quietly returned with no fanfare, but even that was better than the experiences of some returning from fighting in the controversial conflict.
At the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Ceremony hosted by the 1st Infantry Division Aug. 23 on Fort Riley's Marshall Army Airfield, veterans made a short march on the airfield lined by motorcycles and American flags following a color guard, dressed in Vietnam-era Army fatigues, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, 1st Inf. Div. and Fort Riley commanding general. As the hanger doors parted, more than 200 veterans listened to the band playing music, cheering from current "Big Red One" Soldiers, community organizations and several handmade signs welcoming them home.
The 1st Inf. Div. and Fort Riley made it a mission to give Vietnam veterans of all branches of service the welcome home they earned in Vietnam with a ceremony and reception as part of Victory Week 2017 and the celebration of 100 years of continuous service by the 1st Inf. Div.
Marine veteran Rodney Hilker made the 250-mile trip from Arapahoe, Nebraska, to Fort Riley with his son and grandson for the reception.
"It is awe enhancing," Hilker said. "I have never been around anything like this since I have been out of the Marine Corps and that has been 46 years. You get an occasional "thank you," but for this and all they have done for us and to get us down to a program like this means a lot to me.
"When I came home, we lived in a small community so we didn't have people throw rocks at us or cussing us, but you got home and that was it. This is more of an outreach with a lot of different organizations. It just makes you feel proud."
According to Hilker's son, Tracy, the former Marine originally did not want to make the trip for the ceremony, but Tracy convinced his father and a third generation of the Hilker family, Judah Niemeier, to attend.
"At first, he didn't want to come down here," Tracy said of his father. "He uses a cane and doesn't like crowds so he didn't want to come. I was like, 'I will go with you. I will be there with you so you can enjoy this experience.' Finally he asked me to come. It has been an honor and quite humbling."
Veterans weren't the only people in attendance that appreciated the ceremony. Several wives made the trip to be in attendance with their husbands as they were welcomed home. Danna Crenshaw from Mayetta, Kansas, made the trip to be with her husband, Lester, a Navy veteran.
"I think they deserve it," Crenshaw said. "A long time ago he wouldn't even talk about being in Vietnam because it wasn't looked upon as being good. It is really making him feel good now that people are showing their appreciation for what they went through."
Kay Rethman's husband served three years in the Army during Vietnam, spending one year in the southeast Asian country.
"This is just amazing," the Holton, Kansas, resident said. "They deserve this after all this time. It is great to see all these men together and sharing stories, and even with the young servicemen and women here at Fort Riley. It is a wonderful experience."
Another veteran enjoyed being around fellow Vietnam veterans. Ed Allen, Tipton, Kansas, was an infantry Soldier in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade during his time in Vietnam.
"It is kind of the only time to be comfortable," Allen said. "I can't really talk to anyone about Vietnam if they weren't there. We didn't really get any welcome home. They kind of snuck us in during the middle of the night."
Sgt. Bevelyn Kozma, human resource technician, 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Inf. Div., welcomed home the veterans by shaking their hands, expressing her gratitude and even sharing a hug with a few of the veterans before the ceremony started.
"I have always recognized the troubles and tribulations the Vietnam veterans have had to overcome, especially not being welcomed home and the feeling of nobody welcoming you home when you come back from deployment," Kozma said. "I thank them because if wasn't for them, I might not be here today. I don't cry much, but I feel like it is eventually going to come out at the end of the day."
Kozma said she enjoyed the feeling of returning to her family following a deployment to Iraq in 2006 and can't imagine the return the Vietnam veterans experienced.
"It has definitely been an eye opener because we have always been welcomed back," Kozma said. "They got kicked or stuff thrown on them. They weren't welcomed home at all. Imagine going overseas and fight for your country, but were never appreciated for that. You lost your comrades, and everybody just doesn't realize that."
Rep. Roger Marshall, a former Army reservist, was also on hand to welcome home the service members.
"The hospitality that Fort Riley extends is always amazing," Marshall said. "I grew up and was maybe 9, 10 or 12 years old when people came back, and my memory is this country turning its back on these veterans. But these veterans never turned their backs on this country. They remained patriotic and I am glad that some of them finally had a welcome-home party. The 1st Infantry Division is making this part of their 100th anniversary as well so I think it is great tradition they have started. Nobody does it better than Fort Riley."
Following the ceremony, veterans and guests were treated to a steak dinner by the All American Beef Battalion. The Pride of the Prairie 4-H Club from Elwood, Nebraska, helped serve the veterans. The club is the recipient of the 2017 Nebraska Governor's Agricultural Excellence Award and chose to spend the money making the trip and volunteering for the veterans.
"I got the idea that it is just a special event to honor Vietnam veterans and we found that some of our 4-H kids have grandfathers that are Vietnam veterans," said Becky Chaney, club leader. "We have five veterans that came on the bus with us, three of whom are grandfathers of our 4-H kids. It has made it really special that we all traveled together.
"I am proud to have the opportunity to bring the Vietnam veterans down here to be part of this special group to honor them for the sacrifices they made 50 years ago. We want them to know how much we appreciate what they did 50 years ago and that they are still appreciated."
Cauy Bennett was one of the grandsons that made the trip with his grandfather, Denny Kenning. Kenning was a combat engineer in the Army and spent a year in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.
"It is an honor to be here; I am glad he fought for our country and all these Soldiers that put their lives on the line for us so we could have a free country we are living in today," Bennett said. "I think it is awesome. From what I have heard the Vietnam War was the worst. Nobody recognized it, and I think they should recognize it because those Soldiers had to fight in the hardest war."
The welcome home ceremony is the third Vietnam welcome home ceremony hosted by the 1st Inf. Div.