- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - They flocked to Casper from Cheyenne, Gillette and Riverton, by way of Saigon, Da Nang and Bien Hoa some four decades ago.

Many of the Vietnam veterans recalled people spitting on them at San Francisco International Airport as they returned home from Asia. Some of the soldiers were called baby killers, cussed at or denied jobs due to their military service in one of the most contentious wars in U.S. history.

Others described health problems that they attribute to Agent Orange, an herbicide the U.S. military sprayed over the jungles, or described flashbacks that could last as long as a day.

Yet they all said they wanted to attend what may be the first Wyoming Vietnam Veterans “Welcome Home” Reunion, which began Thursday and continues through Sunday. The reunion also marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of Saigon, signifying the end.

Their reasons for coming varied.

“My thought is, it’s well overdue,” said Mike Crowe, of Casper, who was a sergeant in the Marines from 1967 to 1969 south of the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.

There were no parades or welcome home celebrations for Crowe or the other veterans - who are expected to number in the hundreds throughout the reunion.

Crowe enlisted in North Dakota. In Vietnam, he traveled with troops and set up radio communications throughout the country for the 7th Communication Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

To this day, the smell of diesel fuel triggers memories of being in Vietnam, which can last a day. Crowe declined to describe what goes on in his head.

Harold McKinney, of Moorcroft, said the reunion is a chance to see others who were in Vietnam, those who are still alive. Many people in his Marine battalion who served with him have died.

Thirteen years ago, McKinney, now 68, became sick, first with diabetes. He had stents placed in his heart and suffers from leg problems. He blames Agent Orange.

He told the Casper Star-Tribune (https://bit.ly/1ARX666 ) that he receives benefits for being a disabled veteran.

“It was an interesting senior trip,” he said, joking, since he served out of high school. “We got to dodge bullets. We got to play in the monsoon. We got to dodge rockets. You got to see USO shows.”

However, McKinney also said he struggles with the memories, which he also declined to discuss. In Vietnam, he went on patrols and purified water for the troops.

His wife, Louise McKinney, said she’s been married to two Vietnam veterans, and they are sparing in details.

“They don’t want to dredge up a lot of bad memories,” she said. “And (they decline talking) to protect us from what they had to do over there.”

Harold McKinney said the public was more judgmental of them than they were of World War II or Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, which is why many do not share stories.

Joseph Pinter felt compelled to attend the reunion to thank as many people as he could for their service. Most have never been thanked, he said.

“It’s something that’s got to be done,” he said.

Pinter served from 1964 to 1971 with the Air National Guard in Cheyenne, delivering anything from Agent Orange to toilet paper to all the major bases in Vietnam, he said.

Once on a C-121 cargo plane, two of the four engines died, and the plane had to detour from South Vietnam to Thailand, a U.S. ally. The plane flew over Cambodia, which sided with the North Vietnamese. The crew was nervous for the entire trip over Cambodia, he said.

After the Vietnam War, Pinter became an officer and served for decades in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, while working full-time as a teacher in Thermopolis.

Evansville resident Stan Becker is attending the reunion to promote Project Healing Waters, which takes disabled active service personnel and veterans fly fishing.

Becker served two tours in Vietnam for the Army, including time as a helicopter pilot for the 229th Aviation Battalion, dropping off and picking up troops for combat.

“We were lead magnets,” he said. “We got shot at a lot. But we did the job. We did what we could.”

He was shot down three times, he said. Each time, he was rescued by others in the Army. He recalled being lifted out of the jungle by cable attached to a helicopter or working with other soldiers to fix planes.

“We were pretty scared,” said Becker, who had a 20-year military career. “We were kind of young and dumb, too.”

Becker learned the value of comradery. He knew other soldiers would always have his back when he needed them, and he would have theirs.

“We answered the call of our country,” he said. “We did what we were told. And we didn’t think we were coming back. . Half of my (flight school) class didn’t come back.”

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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