Marietta Elks Lodge 1657 played host to the program, during which veterans swapped stories, thanked one another for their service and honored the service members who never came back.
When soldiers returned home from Vietnam, they faced a hostile political climate and aggressive opposition to the United States’ involvement in the war.
Dan Tatum of Marietta, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said he was disconnected from the news of changing opinions and escalating disapproval while serving in Vietnam, with access only to the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Bobby Carlson, Georgia Elks Veterans chairman, also said veterans were met with hostility when they returned.
“You come home and you don’t know why people are treating you the way they are,” said Carlson, also of Marietta.
The Elks Lodge ceremony fell exactly 41 years and one day from when the last of America’s troops in Vietnam returned home.
The anniversary was named Vietnam Veterans Day by President Barack Obama in a 2012 proclamation.
“Our veterans answered our country’s call and served with honor, and on March 29, 1973, the last of our troops left Vietnam. Yet, in one of the war’s most profound tragedies, many of these men and women came home to be shunned or neglected — to face treatment unbefitting their courage and a welcome unworthy of their example,” the proclamation said. “We must never let this happen again.”
It wasn’t just the men and women donning the American uniform overseas who dealt with resentment, said Walt Cusik, of Marietta, who served in the military police in Vietnam.
Their families also suffered, he said, and many kept their service a secret.
“You were a baby killer,” Cusik said.
That attitude has changed, said Joe Simmons, who worked as a U.S. Air Force civil engineer in Vietnam.
“When I came home, nobody appreciated veterans in 1969, but now it seems like they’re starting to appreciate veterans for their service. I’m glad,” Simmons said.
While on his way to the celebration at the Elks Lodge off Powder Springs Road on Sunday, Simmons stopped at a traffic light. A driver in the next lane noticed that Simmons was wearing a black hat reading “Vietnam Veteran.”
“He thanked me for my service,” Simmons said.
That’s a far cry from the reception he received 40 years ago.
“You were actually ashamed to wear your uniform if you were off duty,” Simmons said.
Though the service members who returned from the war safely can be honored today, there are thousands never saw any kind of homecoming.
About 1,350 Americans were considered to be prisoners of war or missing in action during the Vietnam War, with another 1,200 Americans presumed dead, but their bodies never recovered.
“In Vietnam, we lost a lot of good men,” said former U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Shelby. “They were listed as MIAs because nobody ever found a body … their families were left in limbo.”
Shelby motioned to an empty dining table set for one while speaking to the group Sunday, noting it was meant to symbolize there are still soldiers missing.
Tears rolled down his face as Shelby recalled how he learned his friend was missing after returning from rest and recuperation.
“They met the airplane and said, ‘Have you been drinking?’” Shelby recalled. “I said no. They said ‘Put on your flight suit. We’ve got a search and rescue going on.’”
That friend was never found and his name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
“He and I were in the same fraternity,” Shelby said. “We were buddies.”