Time has this way of reshaping attitudes toward institutions and the people who give them life and energy.
I returned to civilian life 50 years ago Thursday. I had been in the U.S. Army for two years. I left on Aug. 21, 1968, received my basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash., then my advanced training as an aircraft mechanic at Fort Eustis, Va., took a turn in South Vietnam, then returned to my final duty station back at Fort Lewis.
It was an uneventful tour of duty. It does, though, fill me with pride today as I look back on it.
My final duty station was with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, where I was assigned to a transportation company; I drove a five-ton cargo truck. Then I received a temporary duty assignment to North Fort Lewis, driving a 44-passenger bus that transported recruits to various training stations. The Army had this curious way of assigning soldiers to duty stations that had nothing to do with the training they had received. That’s what happened when I went to the 3rd Cav.
On Aug. 20, 1970, I processed out of the Army. Fort Lewis is just about 150 miles north along Interstate 5 from Portland, Ore., my hometown. I had my own car with me at Fort Lewis. It was my first vehicle, a 1961 Plymouth Valiant, with a slant-six engine and a three-speed manual transmission with the shifter on the floor. Kinda cool, you know?
I received my separation papers and then, dressed in my summer khakis, I drove home.
I was anxious to get out of my uniform. I mean, there were no “Welcome home” signs greeting me at the house. There was no party. Just Mom and one of my sisters were there. Dad was at work.
As I recall, Mom asked me to keep my uniform on and told me Dad wanted to see me at the store where he worked. I drove to the store. Dad greeted me and then introduced me all around. He was proud of the service I had performed and I remember fondly the reaction I got from Dad’s friends and colleagues as we walked through the store.
That was a different time. The America in August 1970 was a far different place than it is in August 2020. Americans didn’t embrace their returning servicemen and women the way we do now. I don’t recall feeling slighted in the moment.
I do recall, though, watching the change come over the nation years later as we welcomed home the men and women who served in the Persian Gulf War, when we greeted them with parades and ceremonies in city and town squares.
Watching those young Americans get that kind of welcome home filled my heart with joy and pride for them. Just as it does now when we see young Americans returning to the nation’s embrace from their fight against international terrorism.
We have grown up since those dark days when Americans somehow saw fit to blame the men and women who merely were doing what we were told. We took oaths to follow orders … and we did.
That was a long time ago. I am glad those dark days are gone.