Gillian Flaccus
and Lisa Cornwell

Even as the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973, soldiers returning home were advised to change into civilian clothes on their flights because of fears they would be accosted by protesters after they landed.

Like many who came home from the war, Wayne Reynolds of Athens, Ala., is haunted by the fact he survived Vietnam when thousands more didn’t. Encountering war protesters after returning home made the readjustment to civilian life more difficult.

“I was literally spat on in Chicago in the airport,” he said. “No one spoke out in my favor.”

It took a long time for Reynolds to acknowledge his past, though. For years after the war, Reynolds said, he didn’t include his Vietnam service on his resume and rarely discussed it with anyone.

While the fall of Saigon two years later — with its indelible images of frantic helicopter evacuations — is remembered as the final day of the Vietnam War, today marks an anniversary that holds greater meaning for many who fought, protested or otherwise lived the war. Forty years later, they’ve embarked on careers, raised families and in many cases counseled a younger generation emerging from two other faraway wars.

Reynolds, 66, spent a year working as an Army medic on an evacuation helicopter in 1968 and 1969. On days when the fighting was worst, his chopper would make four or five landings in combat zones to rush wounded troops to emergency hospitals.

The terror of those missions still comes back to him at night, along with images of the blood that was everywhere. The dreams are worst when he spends the most time thinking about Vietnam, like around anniversaries.

“I saw a lot of people die,” Reynolds said.

After Vietnam, Reynolds’ career included stints as a public school superintendent and, most recently, a registered nurse.

He is serving his 13th year as the Alabama president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and he also has served on the group’s national board as treasurer.

Reynolds said the lingering survivor’s guilt and the rude reception back home are the main reasons he spends much of his time now working with veterans’ groups to help others obtain medical benefits. He also acts as an advocate on veterans’ issues, a role that landed him a spot on the program at a 40th anniversary ceremony planned for today in Huntsville, Ala.

Ohioans remember

Former Air Force Sgt. Howard Kern, who lives in central Ohio near Newark, spent a year in Vietnam before returning home in 1968.

He said that for a long time he refused to wear any service ribbons associating him with southeast Asia and he didn’t even his tell his wife until a couple of years after they married that he had served in Vietnam. He said she was supportive of his war service and subsequent decision to go back to the Army to serve another 18 years.

Kern, an administrative assistant at the Licking County Veterans’ Service Commission, said the public’s attitude is a lot better toward veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan — something he attributes in part to Vietnam veterans.

“We’re the ones that greet these soldiers at the airports. We’re the ones who help with parades and stand alongside the road when they come back and applaud them and salute them,” he said.

He said that while the public “might condemn war today, they don’t condemn the warriors.”

“I think the way the public is treating these kids today is a great thing,” Kern said. “I wish they had treated us that way.”

But he still worries about the toll that multiple tours can take on service members.

“When we went over there, you came home when your tour was over and didn’t go back unless you volunteered. They are sending GIs back now maybe five or seven times, and that’s way too much for a combat veteran,” he said.

Similar experiences

Harry Prestanski, 65, of West Chester, Ohio, served 16 months as a Marine in Vietnam and remembers having to celebrate his 21st birthday there. He is now retired from a career in public relations and spends a lot of time as an advocate for veterans, speaking to various organizations and trying to help veterans who are looking for jobs.

He said that even though the recent wars are different in some ways from Vietnam, those serving in any war go through some of the same experiences.

“One of the most difficult things I ever had to do was to sit down with the mother of a friend of mine who didn’t come back and try to console her while outside her office there were people protesting the Vietnam War,” Prestanski said.

He said the public’s response to veterans is not what it was 40 years ago and credits Vietnam veterans for helping with that.

“When we served, we were viewed as part of the problem,” he said. “One thing about Vietnam veterans is that — almost to the man — we want to make sure that never happens to those serving today.”