Alaska Vietnam vets get belated ‘welcome home’

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Alaskan Vietnam Veterans were honored last month at the Capitol as part of the first annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony. Veterans were recognized and presented with certificates by the Joint Legislative Veterans Caucus, made up of state senators and representatives. Five members of the Discovery preschool kicked off the ceremony by presenting “Welcome Home” signs they made to the veterans being honored.

“Many of these brave warriors received a less than warm welcome home when they returned from their tours in Vietnam,” Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, and co-chair the veterans caucus, told the audience. “We felt it was time to show them how much their service means to Americans.”

Eric Hollen, a veterans affairs specialist with Huggins’ staff, said the certificates presented were to “recognize the Vietnam veteran in a way that should have been done when they returned home from Vietnam.”

In choosing which veterans to honor, Hollen said lawmakers reached out to constituents and created a pool of veterans to be recognized, adding that an effort is being made to recognize all of Alaska’s Vietnam vets. March 29 has been designated Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day in Alaska.

In coordination with the event at the Capitol, the University of Alaska Southeast hosted a viewing of the ceremony at its recreational center. The viewing featured several dozen veterans in uniform, complete with an appearance by the Harley Owners Group of the Tongass. The group rode in formation to the event to show support.

Many veterans at the viewing said they were honored by the event, even though they came home more than 40 years ago and there was little “welcoming” to their arrival at the time.

“I came home to an uncaring public,” said Walter Soboleff, Jr., a Vietnam veteran and lifelong Juneau resident. “People would spit on us at the airport. I got used to running through airports, ditching my uniform. I was ashamed for years.”

Though not all arrivals back home were as dramatic for all veterans, most were unpleasant.

“(When we got back) we had our uniforms on but no one ever met you or said anything to you,” said Larry Atkinson, a Vietnam veteran. “It was like I snuck in and no one knew I was back. I stayed up for weeks. I had lost everything.”

Soboleff and Atkinson, who became friends more than a decade ago by bonding over building models and their experiences in the war, said coming back has been made easier over the years by society’s change in perception.

“I admire the efforts Joe Public is making now,” Soboleff said. “You know, kids are coming up to me in the store and saying, ‘Thank you.’ Geeze, that makes me feel good.

“(This event) is an honor. After all of these years, it’s almost 45 years for me … I’m not bitter I didn’t get met by anybody. I didn’t get a welcome home, but at least we’re getting recognized finally.”

The Alaska Veterans Caucus plans to continue the event, with Juneau being the focus, and continue to “welcome home” all of Alaska’s Vietnam veterans.

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Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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