While a uniformed bugler played taps beneath the flagpole at the Eagle Point National Cemetery Thursday, Richard Lewis of Grants Pass wept.
The U.S. Navy veteran who’d twice deployed was overcome with emotion as a crowd of more than 50 people gathered to pay tribute to servicemen and women who served in Vietnam.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Lewis said between sobs.
He served two tours for the Navy in the early 1970s, deploying on the USS Coral Sea out of the Bay Area.
“San Francisco could’ve cared less,” Lewis said.
Lewis recalls “all those SOS (Stop Our Ships) signs” when his ship came in, and he remembers feeling “so unappreciated” dressed in his whites or blues.
For Lewis, who has taught outboard classes for marines and sailors, the derision was compounded by survivor’s guilt from his assignments during his tours.
“I always felt guilty I was on land,” Lewis said.
Lewis was among dozens of local Vietnam veterans who collected honorary lapel pins on National Vietnam War Veterans Day Thursday, as part of services honoring those who served between 1955 and 1975. The ceremonies started in 2012, but March 29 was declared a holiday last year after President Trump signed into law the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017.
“I’m so thankful for what the president did,” Lewis said, adding that although he’s unsure he’ll ever find healing from how he was treated, the honor was “therapeutic.”
Lewis was far from alone reflecting on the mixed bag of experiences that followed the conflict.
Cradling military ribbons he’s kept but never worn, Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser recounted his own memories of returning home to disrespect after serving and losing brothers in arms in the 11th Pathfinder Company, in which he served as a liaison between the Army’s infantry and aviation units.
“The first thing you did when you got home was do away with your Army greens and try to blend in,” said Strosser, who collected a lapel pin Thursday.
Strosser said he has visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., four times, and each visit was “tremendously emotional.”
“It’s hard to describe the impact it has,” Strosser said.
A half century later, Strosser remains in contact with those he served with, talking to them at least once a week.
It was a life-changing experience that Strosser could have avoided. He was working as a police officer when he got drafted in 1967, he said, and all he had to do was ask the police chief to write him a letter to be relieved.
“I didn’t think it was right to avoid a duty to the country we live in,” Strosser said.
Vietnam veteran Bob Huff, who delivered the address at Eagle Point Cemetery, remembered being issued a new Army uniform, then being told not to wear it.
“We all got treated the same when we returned,” Huff said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.