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Vietnam veteran presented with new medals after losing all in Tunnel Fire in Arizona

Vietnam veteran caps (U.S. Air Force/Released)

First Lt. David Barthman was in a good mood Wednesday afternoon.

The sounds of “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel tinned out of his cellphone and filled the mostly empty living room. The sharp smell of fresh paint came off the interior walls of his modular home. Out the back window, burned logs lay strewn across the dirt lot, their char glossy under the bright light of the blue sky, remnants from the wildfire that ravaged his northern Arizona home weeks ago.

On the kitchen counter sat a row of baseball caps facing the entrance. One was olive green, another patterned like the American flag, and another black with gold lettering that read “Vietnam Veteran.”

The day before, Barthman wore this last cap atop a navy blue suit, with his salt-and-pepper ponytail hanging out the back. He went to his “Welcome Home” ceremony at American Legion Post No. 3 in Flagstaff dressed to impress, though he only expected 10, maybe 15 people would be there. The 75 who showed up — veterans, civilians young and old — caught him by surprise.

“And then the mayor and representative for Senator [Kyrsten] Sinema, they gave me the commendations and the letters and all that,” Barthman said. “I found that most enlightening.”

The event had been organized by Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Kreiberg of Veteran’s Affinity, an organization whose motto is “proudly serving those who served.” During the Welcome Home event, Veteran’s Affinity re-presented Barthman with a shadowbox full of medals, service insignias and challenge coins — mementos that Barthman lost when the Tunnel Fire burned his house down to the foundation.

But Barthman wasn’t that “broken up” about losing these physical tokens of his service. While he shook hands at the end of an aisle of flags, his eyes were caught on something else.

“The nicest thing yesterday was seeing all those men in uniform,” Barthman said. “Those older guys. The Vietnam vets. They can wear their memorabilia in public and know that they’re proud.”

That wasn’t always the case. When Barthman returned home from Vietnam in 1971, he returned to civilians who were unsupportive of his service.

“We never lost a battle,” Barthman said. “We lost the war because we didn’t have the support of the American people.”

Like many Vietnam veterans, Barthman learned to deny his service when he applied for bank loans, to keep his uniform in the closet if he went to the grocery, the hardware store.

To do otherwise would be to invite discrimination.

“You’d never wear your uniform to avoid humiliation,” he said. “You’d never wear your uniform as a means of self-protection.”

As a third-generation soldier, the treatment of Vietnam veterans was jarring to Barthman. He had grown up with admiration for his father and grandfather, who served in World War I and World War II, respectively. Service was a family tradition.

“I never hesitated,” he said. “I wanted to go into service because I knew further on down the line you’d have a family reunion, and I didn’t want it to be the odd one out.”

But when Barthman returned home to find that his service had turned him into an outcast among the American people, he was heartbroken and angry. He found himself looking for a way to escape the judgment and took work on maritime ships, where he could be out at sea for months at a time, safe in the company of other servicemen.

“You can only take so many tomatoes and eggs to the head,” Barthman said.

For decades, Barthman grappled with the shame and frustration he felt from his treatment by the American people. The emotions came to a head when he saw the Gulf War victory parade on television in 1991. He said he was overcome with anger.

“Where was my goddamned parade?” he wanted to know. “My father got it. My uncle got it. My grandfather got it. Why didn’t it happen for me?”

But Barthman knew he could not hold this anger forever. In the years that followed, he worked hard to let go, to move on and accept. During that time, he found guidance in the words of his favorite preacher.

“If you hold hatred and hostility deep within you for long enough, it will simmer and then grow, and pretty soon you realize you’re not a very friendly person to be around,” Barthman said.

By the time the Tunnel Fire blazed out of the hills to claim his home, his medals and uniforms, Barthman had done a lot of work to heal the anger in his heart. He was 74 then, far from the young man who served in Vietnam.

“As you get older, you realize that memories are important,” he said. “But some are more important than others after a while. And some you thought were important aren’t so important anymore.”

When it comes to what was lost in the fire, he said “there was nothing that couldn’t be replaced” — with the exception of his original, olive drab green army field jacket.

“That I wanted to keep,” Barthman said. “But the good Lord had other ideas.”

While he was appreciative that Veteran’s Affinity was able to give him new medals, Barthman was mostly thankful that Tuesday’s event gave him the welcome home he had waited 51 years for. He was thankful that he could see Vietnam Veterans such as himself proudly in uniform.

“A lot of hard feelings from way back then had diminished,” he said. “Yesterday was kind of like icing on the cake.”

“It was worth the wait,” he added.

Now Barthman is resettling into a life upended by the Tunnel Fire. He’s moved into a house he was working on remodeling “sooner than expected,” and trying not to work too hard in getting the house into living shape.

“The body talks, and you got to listen to it,” he said.

He’ll take work a little bit a time with the help of his neighbors and the knowledge that when the Tunnel Fire burned away his home and medals, it also set into motion the events that would help cauterize his oldest, deepest wound.

“The coming days will be a lot more pleasant,” he said.

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