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A belated, emotional ‘welcome home” for many Vietnam vets at Auburn parade

Plus: "Auburn and Vietnam" by the numbers
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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It was a long time coming for a war a long time gone. Vietnam veterans were showered with hearty applause from hundreds of onlookers as they marched or rode the Veterans Day parade route Wednesday in Auburn. This year’s theme was “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans” and it brought out several who had never participated before in the parade. For 69-year-old Harry Ward of Ophir, the first-time experience of marching in a Nov. 11 parade was a form of homecoming he missed the first time around. Ward, a platoon leader in Vietnam, said fellow Vietnam veteran Larry Webber convinced him to take part. “But he didn’t tell me how emotional it was going to be,” Ward said, after the parade. “I haven’t digested it all yet. But it should help get over the hurdle of putting the past behind me.” Ward said his thoughts turned to so many others killed in Vietnam – including two college roommates and another roommate from officer training. In one operation, his battalion lost 13 members, he recalled. “It brought up memories,” Ward said. “This has been pretty emotional for me.” Ward marched at the front of the parade with other Vietnam veterans. He received a medal from the parade organizing committee with the “welcome home” theme printed on it. Ward recalled how different things were for him when he returned in 1967. “There were protesters and no cheering at the San Francisco airport,” he said. “I just focused on the front door and made my way through the airport.” After 42 years, Ward said he appreciates the thanks he received along the parade route – and hopes returning veterans today will continue to get that strong support. He plans to march again next year. “I got through my first one so I know I’ll be able to get through my second one,” he said. Cynthia Haynes, Auburn-Area Veterans Day event chairman, said Vietnam veterans she handed “Welcome Home” medals to along the parade route were sometimes overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. At one point, Haynes spotted a man with a Vietnam veteran’s hat on, went over to him and asked if she could put a “Welcome Home” medal around his neck. “His face turned red and then I could see tears welling up in his eyes as he told me that I was the first person to ever say ‘Welcome home’ to him,” Haynes said. “Then he gave me a huge hug and he wouldn’t let me go. It was a healing.” The event attracted hundreds of veterans from many wars and the parade route from Downtown Auburn to the Gold Country Fairgrounds was lined by nearly 2,000 people. Dave Chaix, a Vietnam veteran who now leads a local effort to assist orphanages in Vietnam, was the grand marshal. Heather McIntosh, who accompanied her daughter, Makayla and her Granite Bay Brownie troop to the parade, said she thought back to several relatives who served in past wars. “It makes you really think of all the veterans and the military have done for us in this country,” McIntosh said. The importance of the day wasn’t lost on her daughter. “It’s to say thank-you to the ones who were fighting in the war,” Makayla added. About 500 people stayed for a ceremony inside the fairgrounds’ National Guard Armory that included patriotic songs and poetry honoring veterans on their day. Haynes said the parade went smoothly, thanks to the efforts of the committee over the last year. It was the biggest the city has had for Veterans Day in a very long time, she said. Next year’s theme has already been established. It will be honoring Korean War veterans. ------------------------------------ By the numbers: The Vietnam War and Auburn 1961 – American military presence in Vietnam initiated 1973 – End of Vietnam War 58,178 – American war dead, including eight women 300,000 – Americans wounded in action during the Vietnam War 13 – Auburn residents killed in action March 30 – The date each year put aside as “Welcome Home Veterans Day” 1,200 – Number of hot dogs (one per person) distributed to parade participants at a lunch in Auburn following Wednesday’s Veterans Day parade. 300 – Number of participant medals given to veterans at last year’s parade, plus those physically unable to attend. 500 – The number of participant members that were distributed this year to veterans Source: Auburn-Area Veterans Day Parade Committee