When Shelly Holcomb of Boiling Springs flew back home from Vietnam in 1971 after serving two years in the Army Nurse Corps, she was told not by to wear her uniform when she got off the plane.
U.S. Army veteran Jay Howard of Greenville, who also served in Vietnam for two years, also said he was told not to wear his uniform when he arrived home at Fort Lewis in Washington in 1972.
That's because service members were aware that the American public opposed the war and that they would be the subject of protests and ridicule. But Holcomb and Howard said they weren't greeted by protesters, nor did they give much thought to what kind of welcome they'd receive.
"We were just glad to get back home," Howard said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officially welcomed them and about 30 others at a ceremony at the University of South Carolina Upstate Readiness Center.
Pins were presented by Leanne Weldin, director of the VA's Columbia regional office and an Army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"When I returned home from convoy, a Vietnam veteran was there," Weldin said, wiping back tears. "This is to show the kind of welcome he never received."
America's direct involvement in Vietnam started in March 1965 as the first Marines landed in Da Nang, followed by the first large-scale battles against the North Vietnamese Army in the la Drang Valley in November of that year.
When the final troops were airlifted out in May 1975, the war's death toll included 58,307 Americans. The United States also saw 30,000 injured and tens of thousands disabled.
Today there are an estimated 7 million Vietnam-era veterans and 9 million families of veterans. Roughly 7,500 women served in Vietnam, eight of whom were killed and 800 missing in action.
Thursday, each veteran received a pin commemorating their bravery, courage, integrity, patriotism and sacrifices. The pin included a message on the back, "A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You," along with the recipient's name.
The ceremony also included a table with an empty chair, signifying the fallen heroes of the war.
"Remember, all of you who served with them," said U.S. Army veteran Yolanda Lomax, who works with the VA. "They have not forgotten you."
Marine veteran Ronnie Harrison, also a VA employee, said his federal agency is there to serve all veterans.
"It is you who have paved the way for all of us," he said. "We will service your claim with conviction, with integrity. We hope when you leave here you will look at the VA as a totally different institution."
Several veterans said they were glad to be recognized, and a bit surprised that the turnout was not larger.
"I wish more people could have come," said retired helicopter pilot Charlie Dowling of Glendale, who came to apply for benefits due to possible Agent Orange exposure. He said he served in Vietnam in 1962-63.
Nathaniel Cooper of Columbia, who was an Army medic with the 25th Infantry Division, said he thought the recognition Thursday was "very appropriate."
The ceremony coincided with a tumultuous week for the VA. President Donald Trump fired embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Chulkin and nominated Ronny L. Jackson, an active-duty rear admiral in the Navy, to replace him.
Weldin said regardless of who ends up in charge in Washington, her mission in South Carolina remains the same.
"We've gotten increasing budgets under the two most recent administrations," she said. "There are 360,000 employees in Veterans Affairs. We have 7,000 in South Carolina. We appreciate the leadership (in Washington), but our employees are here. We continue regardless of who's in leadership. We just keep marching."
Weldin said veterans can find out more information about their benefits by visiting VA.gov or Vets.gov, or by calling 800-827-1000.
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