Last week, Phil Chapman hosted a 50th anniversary party marking the end of the Vietnam war.
It was a quiet afternoon of pizza, conversation and smiles for 30 to 40 grey-bearded Vietnam vets and friends who mingled, chatted and shared tales of their shared experiences.
Phil, a combat Marine who lost a leg to a Vietnamese land mine, asked local restaurants to provide pizza and other goodies for a group of old-timers who rarely talk about their time in Nam. Thanks to them all.
Listening to their conversations, you could tell the Viet vets come down on all sides of the national political spectrum.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that our politics have evolved or devolved into several camps. Many on the right and left refuse to talk with each other; not so at this event.
Some claim our political discourse is more divided than ever before. The folks who make these claims and those who believe them are mistaken or uninformed. History tells us a different story.
We endured the isolationist movements of the 1930s, various racial and religious conflicts, and political battles over slavery that triggered the Civil War. In comparison, these bitter conflicts make our anti-mask protests seem tame.
For the Viet vets, there were no welcome home parades.
Most came home one at a time, caught up with family and friends, and began life as civilians. Some lived and suffered from physical and mental war wounds.
When some Viet vets came home, few were praised for their service. Some vets were called murderers.
When Viet vets shook the dust off their jungle boots, they quickly discovered our nation was split over the war they had just left behind. Those divisions triggered urban riots, campus upheavals and political assassinations. As Americans demonstrated over the war, the national political conventions became combat zones.
On college campuses, students faced the draft and the possibility of being sent to the jungles of Vietnam and an uncertain future.
Understandably, some balked and demonstrated their opinions by sitting in and taking over the offices of college officials. At one quiet university, Ohio National Guard troopers opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing four and wounding nine.
Some officials called anti-war demonstrators un-American for opposing the nation’s combat operations.
Some antiwar types fled to foreign countries as others used family connections to avoid service. Many went to grad school until they passed their 26th birthday and were no longer eligible for the draft.
Ironically, our local Viet Vets’ anniversary party was held at our American Legion hall.
Fifty years ago, some veterans groups were less than kind to the newcomers. Some older vets not only failed to reach out to the Viet vets but told them to get out of the hall and out of the country.
Older vets didn’t like long-haired Viet vets who favored rock and roll over Tommy Dorsey. Some new guys opposed the Vietnam conflict and even smoked funny cigarettes.
We even saw some older vets blame the Viet vets for losing the war as if lowly privates and sergeants were responsible for the nation's war policy and budgets.
In time, many of the older crowd, and much of the nation, decided the whole Vietnam experience was not worth our nation's expenditure of treasure and blood. Later, some even praised folks who dodged the draft and elected one to high office.
Despite initial divisions, veterans groups, like the American Legion, took stock of their positions and took the lead on various health issues of veterans, like those afflicted by Agent Orange. They also pushed for the modernization of Veterans Administration Hospitals and health care facilities.
In recent months, we lived through a pandemic that killed millions and triggered a worldwide economic slowdown. As officials tried to cope with the pandemic, we saw protests over their attempts to mandate the wearing of masks, vaccinations, and other public health practices.
Under our Constitution’s first amendment, free speech protects our decision to speak out against the war or a mask mandate. Not so in other lands where those opposing the government could be jailed or worse.
Last week, in Boothbay and the nation, Viet vets of all political stripes sat down and shared pizza and memories.
In many ways, it was a little celebration of American free speech as political opponents put aside differences, sat down, and focused on common experiences. But, it was more than that.
It was one way for our nation and our community to thank a bunch of old dudes who did their duty a long time ago.