The carnage of war in Vietnam found its way into American living rooms on the nightly news. Many opposed funding what they believed was an unjust war that diverted resources from social, racial, and economic problems at home. Opposition to the draft increased and trust in the government and military eroded. Protests were generally peaceful, but often became confrontational as the war grew increasingly divisive. As a consequence, incidents of violence increased. In May 1970, four Kent State students were killed when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed anti-war protesters. Through it all, American men and women continued to serve. For the most part, they traveled to and from Vietnam alone, often finding themselves in active combat one day and home the next. When they arrived, they found themselves the focus of distaste for the unpopular war. Most put their memories of Vietnam aside. They finished school, married, raised families, and became successful members of their communities. For many, retirement years are marred by health conditions related their service. It is now understood that among the most lethal was exposure to Agent Orange. This was a chemical used to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside, thus exposing enemy positions. According to the Veterans Administration, those who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 were exposed. Regardless of their feelings about the war, most Vietnam veterans are proud of their service. Many are active in their military unit’s reunion organizations. Here in Atlanta, many volunteer to staff the USO booth at the Atlanta airport. They are determined that every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman returns to a heartfelt and deserved “Welcome Home.”
In August 1967, the Atlanta Alliance for Peace, composed of 16 local organizations, planned a protest march, rally, and “sing-out” featuring activist comedian Dick Gregory. Approximately 500 anti-war protesters marched from Piedmont Park to Hurt Park. About 100 pro-war demonstrators harassed the group along the way, though the march remained peaceful. Newspapers labeled it the largest anti-war demonstration in the South. Earlier, Gregory had declared he would not serve in Vietnam “to guarantee some foreigner instant freedom when my six black kids get it on the installment plan at home.” Milton Jones, U.S. Marine Corps, 1966-1967 recalls his homecoming: “We land at Travis Air Force Base. We get off the plane, we’re so thankful to be back in the world, the good old U.S. of A. We get off the plane; we kiss the runway – kneel down and kiss the runway. I’m home. I’m back in the world. Everything’s gonna be great. Few hours later after processing out we walk off the base, along comes a hippie bus, they throw crap – feces – whatever else out on us, call us all sorts of names. And so I’m thinking – how can I fit this experience in to the feelings that I was just expressing? And I couldn’t.”
In 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey visited Atlanta, speaking to a group of 5,000 Fulton County high school seniors. Six anti-war protesters were among the crowd gathered to greet Humphrey at the Municipal Auditorium on Courtland Street. Commenting on their signs, he told the crowd, “We respect that right. One of the reasons we fight in foreign lands and bear such heavy burdens is that we want to live in a world where people have the right to be different.” Several hundred people, most of them students at Georgia State University (then Georgia State College), waved placards expressing support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In the wake of the shooting deaths at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970, anti-war protesters in Atlanta rallied at the Georgia State Capitol. Newspapers estimated a crowd of 5,000 participants, mostly college and high school students, who marched from Piedmont Park down Peachtree Street to the Capitol. Ginny Dornheggen, U.S. Army Nurses Corps, 1970-1971 remembers, “Anger. I had anger. Anger towards our government for putting us there when, at that point … the Vietnamese people – it almost seemed like they didn’t care.”
Veterans’ memories of returning home vary widely, depending on when they served in Vietnam. In the early days of the war, many remember returning home to a country largely indifferent. Many Americans knew little, if anything, about Vietnam and didn’t seem to care. Later, returning veterans faced a far different kind of homecoming. As casualties mounted and the draft pulled more men into the war, opposition increased. In addition, the Civil Rights Movement brought into sharp focus disparities in the military’s treatment of white service members and service members of color. Physical assaults, employment discrimination, and a lack of official support services, are some of the challenges all veterans faced. As a consequence, many remained silent about their military service for decades. Nathan Crutchfield, U.S. Army, 1969-1970, recalls his homecoming: “One of the things I really remember was my brother who was an art student down at Georgia State had made a huge sign that said Welcome Home and that was in the front yard – the thing must be twenty feet long – and it looked a hundred feet to me, but he had that posted out there.”