Ray Duckler: Welcome home? Vets say they’ve been here all along
Ron Barcomb, a veteran of the Vietnam War, poses for a portrait in his room at the Veterans home in Tilton; Wednesday, March 26, 2013. He plans to attend the Welcome Home to Vietnam Veterans ceremony this Saturday. (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Ron Barcomb never wanted sympathy for the arthritis that curves and bends his fingers like lines on a road map.
And he never complains about the Agent Orange that pains his joints, or the Parkinson’s disease that shakes his body, or the nightmares that haunt his mind.
A welcome home?
Oh, well, that would have been nice.
Still would be, now that you mention it.
“I wondered why it took so long for this to happen,” Barcomb said, reclining in his room at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. “They knew it was wrong. People are finally understanding what we went through.”
How strange it seems that Vietnam veterans are so grateful over what is essentially a warm smile, coming at the first Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the local National Guard hangar, on Airport Road.
After all, we left Vietnam in 1973.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Barcomb, who served in 1971. “We have a bus that’s going to take us down.”
“I think it’s tremendous,” said Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat from Penacook who served in 1967 and ’68. “This is a special day for me. It means a lot, and I’m very honored.”
Perhaps no other war in American history has caused more unhealed wounds than the Vietnam War, which claimed nearly 60,000 American lives.
Somehow, the courage shown by so many was lost. We weren’t fighting to break the chains from England, like we had in the 18th century, or to reconnect the ties that held the North and South together, like we had in the 19th century, or to crush the wickedness of aggressive dictatorships in Germany and Japan, like we had in the 20th century.
Instead, we got involved in a civil war on the other side of the world, causing young people to protest and counter-culture musicians to write songs about injustice and American imperialism.
So when Johnny came marching home at various times through the 1960s and ’70s, there were few hurrahs, and even fewer welcome signs.
“Our soldiers who went were connected with U.S. foreign policy,” Shurtleff noted.
“When I first meet fellow Vietnam veterans, I always say, ‘Welcome home,’ ” Shurtleff continued. “It’s become a tradition with us because no one ever welcomed us home.”
On the contrary, the public often condemned the soldiers from that war. Want an example? Want an updated version of what returning veterans were subjected to 40 years ago?
Jim Constantin of Concord, who served in the early 1970s, is thrilled about tomorrow’s ceremony, and has made his feelings known publicly over the hurt he and others have felt through the years.
“You are full of s---,” read an email Constantin received recently. “Why? Um, maybe because we didn’t approve of invading another country and murdering 2 million of their inhabitants.”
It’s this kind of attitude that has smothered gratitude. It’s also why Shurtleff sponsored the bill last March. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he learned from a vets publication that more states were passing legislation to officially welcome home those who, like soldiers in any other war, had served and sacrificed and suffered.
Soldiers returning from Iraq, home to another unpopular war, have received thanks in recent years. Perhaps that has helped this country take a look back at our history.
Constantin is happy about the recent trend. He manned watchtowers during the war, looking for movement near a barbed-wire fence, 50 yards away. Sometimes nothing happened. Other times, though, Vietcong and North Vietnamese tried to get inside.
“The worst was a 122-millimeter rocket,” Constantin said. “It hit about five feet from me.”
The noise never left, even after Constantin did in 1972. “For most Vietnam veterans, the war never stops,” Constantin said. “We’re still fighting it in our heads and our minds. Ask any Vietnam combat veteran.”
Ask Barcomb, who moved to the Veterans Home last year after a stroke made increased supervision necessary.
He’s 63, a Keene High graduate who worked in retail and who met his second wife at a dance five years ago. He spends weekends with her at their home in Goffstown. He has a son, from his first marriage, who served three years in Iraq.
“He’s seen a lot of what I’ve seen,” Barcomb said.
Barcomb was a generator operator and mechanic, helping keep electricity flowing wherever he served. He remembers working on machinery as the enemy approached, sometimes having to retreat to his bunk to get his rifle.
“Day or night,” Barcomb said, “we never knew.”
Once, a friend offered to work for him on a radio site deep in the woods. “They trapped him in there and threw a mine in there,” Barcomb said. “They blew him up. He was from Boston. We were supposed to meet back here. He never made it back.”
Barcomb pauses during the story about his friend, but makes it through, composing himself. And he has no problem talking about the Agent Orange – used to defoliate forested land around U.S. bases to curb guerilla warfare – that he says causes his knees to feel rubbery. He holds his hands up in front of him, like a surgeon who’s just scrubbed for surgery, to show his crooked fingers.
“Arthritis,” Barcomb says. “I had no idea I was affected by Agent Orange. I didn’t know until a full exam in Massachusetts in the past seven months.”
He even speaks about the post-traumatic stress disorder that still affects him today. He attends sessions each Tuesday at the Veterans Service Center in Hooksett, talking with other veterans, sharing common experiences, revealing fears.
“We help each other out,” Barcomb said. “If someone doesn’t show up, we call them up and find out why.”
But then he’s asked about the pins and buttons on his U.S. Army hat, including the one representing POWs, and Barcomb can no longer keep his emotions in check.
Then he bows his head.
Then he looks up, crying.
“I wear them to remind me of the guys over there,” he says, a reference to friends he lost during the war. “They’ll be with us on Saturday.”