Fort Stewart, Hinesville and the nation finally welcomed home veterans from the Vietnam War on Friday evening on Fort Stewart’s Cottrell Field.
The grassy field, where so many recent welcome-home ceremonies have taken place, gave itself to healing a generation of military-service members who only wanted to be recognized for answering the call to service during a time of war.
For one veteran, the ceremony was not only for those who could make it, but also, especially, for those who could not.
“Look at all the names on the wall,” Paul Spence said. “They can’t be here. Somebody’s got to speak for them. And when we speak for them, just walking across that field, is a pretty strong statement.”
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Spence is a 79-year-old Hinesville Vietnam veteran. Originally from North Carolina and raised in an orphanage for five years until he was reunited with his mother, Spence joined the Army in 1953 at age 17.
As an engineer, he was first assigned to France, where he met his future wife, Colette, who was only 15 at the time. They married two years later, had three children and will celebrate 60 years together in January.
Spence came to Fort Stewart in 1964 and worked with the 169th Engineer Battalion. In 1965, the unit deployed first to Okinawa and then for six months to Long Binh, Vietnam, where it helped construct billets and other buildings.
He was deployed again — this time, by himself — joining the 46th Engineers in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 to the Mekong Delta region, where he helped build QL4, a highway that ran to Saigon.
“My second tour of duty in the Delta was a little rougher,” Spence said. “We were so isolated and (came) under a lot of attacks. Again, like all units do, you adjust pretty fast.
“Though it was a little hairy, it was not a terrible tour either,” he said. “I was glad to leave there, don’t get me wrong, but I was doing what I was trained in the Army to do — engineering.”
He deployed for a third time in 1970 to the 1st Signal Brigade, 10 months after his second deployment. Spence finally left Vietnam in 1971.
After the war, Spence eventually retired and earned an associate degree in art from Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Alabama.
When he returned to Hinesville, Spence opened a few businesses and an art gallery.
It was not until 1997 when he finally was able to release some of the feelings he had about how he was treated for going to Vietnam.
Up until then, Spence still was upset that people vilified him and other veterans for what he considered just a job — a job that ordered him to a war zone and away from his family.
“I think the first St. Patrick’s Day parade that I marched in in Savannah, Georgia, I finally left that load behind,” he said. “Because when we walked down that boulevard, and those people shouted out, ‘Welcome home!’ and clapped and run out and got lipstick all over your face from these young ladies kissing you, I said, ‘You know what, people are really gracious, they are really gracious, but you’ve got to see it in action,’ and we did at that time. That to me was a welcome-home.”
Days before the Fort Stewart ceremony, Spence was looking forward to the event.
“I think that it’s going to be a highlight of my life, but I don’t think it’s going to be something that I feel like I have to have. I really don’t,” he said.
“I think just everyday people who come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ is enough of a welcome-home for me. But, on the other hand, if they are going to organize something like that, Paul’s going to be there,” Spence said, laughing.
On Friday, Vietnam veterans who were marching in the welcome-home ceremony were bused to Cottrell Field with a motorcycle escort. Cheers erupted from the stands as they sped by. Fort Stewart officials estimated that 500 to 800 veterans were at the ceremony along with family and friends.
The veterans gathered behind a tree line next to the field and, once assembled, walked into formation in front of the 3rd Infantry Division patch display across from the stands.
Once in formation, they began their march across the field, led by a color guard in old, green fatigues. The crowd roared as the veterans, in sweltering heat and humidity, made their way toward the homecoming they had always desired. Some veterans used powered chairs or canes; others walked under their own power to march together and present themselves.
The color guard uncased a 50th-anniversary commemorative flag for the Vietnam War. As in many military ceremonies, the national anthem was played, the benediction was said, and stirring speeches were given.
Children waved to their grandparents, posters were made featuring old photographs of once-young soldiers, and signs read “Welcome Home” for a conflict that ended decades ago.
Ralph Dickson — at 86, the oldest veteran present — cut the commemorative cake with Task Force Marne Commander Brig. Gen. James Blackburn and Command Sgt. Maj. Stanley Varner. Blackburn then spoke to the crowd and the formation of veterans.
“How fitting is it that we welcome you home as we have for the past 35 years across Cottrell Field, where we welcome everyone back from the honorable missions that are conducted on behalf of their nation,” Blackburn said.
After the ceremony concluded, family members ran to their veterans. People gave hugs and kisses and said, “Thank you for your service,” to those they met.
Spence was looking for his wife amid the jubilant crowd of families and supporters.
The experience was “emotionally draining,” he said.
“I kept saying, ‘About time.’ I loved it. I’ve been to these other ones here, and it was beyond anything I could have imagined,” he said.
“I’m so glad to be home.”