By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD — Soldiers who have returned from combat through Fort Hood since 2003 have received a hero’s welcome, most to the cheers of loved ones and a DJ’s music — and many, to a smoke machine or cavalry charge.
For area Vietnam veterans like Lupe Lopez, vice president of the local Vietnam Veterans of American chapter, the fanfare is in stark contrast to their own homecomings.
“We got none of that — zero, nada,” said 73-year-old Lopez, a retired Army sergeant major who deployed to the war in 1969. “We sort of hid, because (society) didn’t have a good view of soldiers at that time. You didn’t want to be recognized as a soldier.”
But Lupe and what could be thousands of veterans like him will have the homecoming they never got during a welcome home ceremony just for them, scheduled for May 21 at Sadowski Field on post.
Although details of the event are still being developed, Christie Vanover, chief of command information at III Corps and Fort Hood, said Vietnam veterans will be treated to the kind of welcome today’s soldiers receive when they return from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Similar to a 1st Cavalry Division homecoming, in which soldiers traveling onto post in buses unload as the crowd shouts “Move that bus!” to reveal them in formation, Vanover said, “We’ll have the vets behind buses so the crowd doesn’t see them.”
As the buses move and veterans advance onto the parade field, she said, “there will be a large crowd cheering them on and welcoming them home.”
Vanover said several other Army installations have held similar events in recent years, including Fort Carson, Colo., which drew 500 Vietnam veterans to its ceremony in June 2011. She expected Fort Hood’s to rival or surpass past ceremonies in size.
“This is the great state of Texas and it’s the ‘Great Place,'” she said. About 30 veterans already have registered to attend. The event is open to veterans from across the state and country.
Lopez said his group planned to participate.
“We felt like we finally were going to be recognized as soldiers who honored our country and served proudly,” he said. “They’re going to say ‘thank you for you who served in Vietnam and we’re grateful for what you do.'”
He added, “It’s going to bring tears to all of us.”
Vanover said the idea for the welcome was that of III Corps and Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., who suggested the event serve as the opening of Phantom Warrior Week — four days of sporting and other events on post.
The ceremony is designed to be the welcome home the veterans “never received but truly deserve,” said Vanover.
Vietnam veterans will be invited to attend unit open houses following the welcome home, in addition to other events throughout the week. They’re also invited to participate in the pass and review of Fort Hood units at the week’s close on May 24.
Killeen resident James Henry, who deployed twice to Vietnam as a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine battalion starting in 1966, said he hadn’t yet heard of the event but wanted to find out more.
He never imagined he’d see this day, said Henry, 65.
“Well, let’s put it this way: I got spit at back then,” he said. “Vietnam was unpopular back then.
For more information on the III Corps Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Ceremony or to register, go to www.hood.army.mil/pww. Registration ends April 24.