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Vietnam veterans receive an apology and some appreciation

  • John Page of North Haverhill reflects on the poor treatment he received upon his return from Vietnam during a tribute at Alvirne High School on Saturday. Page changed his uniform in an airport bathroom and threw it in the trash to avoid taunts from protestors of the war. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

  • Leon Bechard (right) of Hudson listens to Saturday’s tribute to Vietnam veterans. RAY DUCKLER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/17/2017 8:34:03 PM

It didn’t take long for Leon Bechard to show me his war wound, the one opened without a bullet, the one still fresh and tender after nearly 50 years.

“I get a little emotional here,” the Vietnam veteran from Hudson told me. “I’m sorry.”

He cried, then regained control, then spoke to me about that wound, first inflicted by protesters sometime in the late 1960s, when he returned home on leave. Then it was re-opened in 1970, when Bechard came home for good. People yelled at him, spit on him, blamed him.

Bechard was one man among many with a story. The same story, told at the 5th Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Ceremony on Saturday.

Concord’s National Guard post hosted the first one in 2013. This time it was held at Alvirne High School in Hudson, the last in a series of five annual events that have all rolled out the red carpet for these men and said the same thing: Please forgive us for turning our backs on you. Please accept our apology.

“Some did not want to come,” Greg Heilshorn, the director of public affairs for the New Hampshire National Guard, told me before the ceremony. “They think this is not about them, this is about you and your decades of guilt. There’s definitely some truth to that.”

Still Bechard, a retired salesman, said, “I do feel better after this. It does make up for it. It does.”

He’s a forgiving man. As were the two brothers I spoke to, Norman and John Page, both of whom stood near Bechard and gently touched his back as he fought through his tears.

And this is what he remembered when he landed at Logan Airport, circa 1968. “I was severely harassed at the airport that one time. I was on leave coming home. Home was in New Hampshire. I was harassed, and people yelled, ‘Baby Killer, what are you doing this for?’ that sort of thing.”

He came home two years later, this time for good. This time he was prepared. This time, he did not want to be noticed.

“I had to wear my uniform when I left, so when I got home, because of the way I was treated, I carried a bag of my civilian clothes,” Bechard said. “When I got to the airport, I went into the men’s room. I went in there and I changed my clothes.”

The Page brothers both nodded, as though they were there that day at Logan Airport. 

How did this happen? Why were men like Bechard and the Pages blamed for what the politicians in Washington, D.C., chose to do? We’ve seen nothing like it, before or since. Always, our military fought and died, and always, the people who came home alive were thanked.

Back then, however, with help from the LSD-influenced counterculture and expanded media coverage and corruption in government, young men felt they had to hide once they’d come home, through no fault of their own.

Young men like Bechard, who served in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970, were targets.

“I don’t think I was looking for recognition,” Bechard told me, “but I didn’t think I deserved the harassment, either.”

Norman Page, who lives in North Haverhill, retired from the Air Force in 1978 after a 20-year career. He served in Vietnam in 1970. He supported Bechard, his newfound friend, as Bechard cried. Page himself grew emotional as he moved into his own story.

“It’s similar to his,” Page told me.

Page was in a bunker, listening to the noise from grenades and rocket launchers above him. Then he flew back to the states, to Seattle, and felt the vibe. He slipped into the bathroom, took off his uniform and threw it in the trash.

“You could just feel the atmosphere, the looks, the nasty looks and stares,” Page told me. “I couldn’t take it.”

His brother, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1966, two weeks after graduating from high school, did the same thing upon his return from Vietnam. He had been warned of the treatment spreading across the country, so he threw his jungle fatigues and boots into a bathroom garbage, changed his clothes and began his new life.

I asked him if he regretted it.

“I told someone this morning that I wish I’d kept that uniform and those boots,” John Page said, “because I am so proud of my service, and they were so representative of those 24 years that I spent in the Air Force.”

This was a day to express pride. It was also a day to rewind history, to shine a spotlight on ingratitude and twisted logic, not hide it. One by one, the state’s political leaders – Gov. Chris Sununu, and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan – stepped forward and remarked on the terrible injustice Vietnam vets had faced.

“Our nation failed them when they returned,” Shaheen said.

Their “service was very harshly disregarded,” Sununu said.

Which is why Saturday’s tribute was so important, needed to right a wrong. And it helped, while it hurt.

“I threw my uniform away and got on the airplane and forgot about it,” Norman Page said. “I tried to forget it, put it in the back, and this helps. But you never forget it. It’s always in here.”

He tapped his chest. The spot where he’d been wounded so long ago.

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