When Thomas Dowd returned from Vietnam in 1971, he was greeted only with a sign on the wall of San Francisco’s airport saying “Welcome Home.”
“That was it,” recalled Mr. Dowd, 71, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, recalled.
Thursday in West Boylston, Mr. Dowd, who lives in Grafton, and more than 20 other area Vietnam veterans and family members of Vietnam veterans received a more ceremonious welcome and received lapel pins recognizing their participation in the Vietnam War.
“We really do want to welcome you home,” Belinda Morrone, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, told the assembled veterans and families. Many of the vets are now in their late 60s and early 70s. “It’s late, but thank you. You kept us safe.”
The pinning ceremony was made possible by the Brookfield Institute, a Brookfield organization that offers resilience training to groups including military families and veterans. The organization is a partner in the USA Vietnam War Commemoration, a Department of Defense program to honor and thank Vietnam veterans and their families for their service in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
The anniversary commemoration spans a long period, as U.S. Armed Forces active involvement in the war spanned Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975. U.S. advisers were deployed even before that, in the early 1950s. Starting last year, March 29 is designated National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
“When you all returned home, we did not appropriately honor you,” said the Rev. Beverly Prestwood-Taylor, executive director of the Brookfield Institute. She called that omission “a wound in our national pride.” She said, “We want to say thank you and welcome you home and give you the honor and respect you deserve.”
Care for the Troops, a program of the Brookfield Institute, helps veterans of all eras transition to civilian life and handle the stress and trauma of conflict. Thus, the ceremony Thursday was held in a perhaps unlikely, but appropriate, place: the Central Mass Yoga and Wellness studio.
The studio holds biweekly Yoga Warriors classes specifically designed for veterans. Many of the pin recipients participate. Led by Lucy Cimini, who is called “Santa Lucia” by many of the veterans, the trauma-sensitive classes involve slow dynamic movements to help relax the mind and certain breathing practices to help calm the nervous system.
“It has saved many of us,” said Roy Dennington, 75, of Clinton, who has been participating in the classes for three years. Mr. Dennington, who led an Army rifle platoon during the time of the Tet Offensive, said that many people in the class deal with post-traumatic stress from their experience in the armed services.
“It’s made me whole,” Mr. Dennington continued. “It’s given me resilience at a time when my life was pretty tamped down, and it’s given me the strength to go on with veterans organizations and other community organizations.”
So Thursday, about 25 veterans and family members of veterans took off their shoes or put booties over the footwear, and received their pins in front of a lotus flower painted on the wall of the yoga studio.
“They’ve made a community here,” said Ms. Cimini.
Ron Harris, who served as a corporal in the Marine Corps in Vietnam from October 1966 to March 1968, said the pins were particularly meaningful because they read “Vietnam War Veteran.”
“The Department of Defense finally recognized that it was a war,” Mr. Harris, 72, of Clinton, said. “Vets have always called it a war.”
And that recognition, as well as the messages of thanks, help provide some closure.
“It’s a welcome-home pin, because we haven’t officially gotten a welcome home from the government,” Mr. Harris said. “We’re getting recognition … it helps bring closure to it.”
Mary Ann Hendrickx, whose husband, Stephen R. Hendrickx, served in Vietnam, accepted a pin for him. She said it was important for family members to be recognized for the support they provided returning veterans.
“I feel like the family members, they tend to give us a bad rap,” said Mrs. Hendrickx. She said many people think that family members divorce or abandon veterans who have returned from Vietnam. “We love them and accept them for who they are.”
As for Mr. Dowd, he said that Thursday was a “more appropriate welcome” home than the one he had received in San Francisco many years ago.
“It’s better late than never,” Mr. Dowd said.
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