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Vietnam veterans accepted, respected decades after their war ended

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
February 16, 2011
— The time was December 1968, and John Kettle had just finished a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam.

Dressed in his Army uniform, he anxiously waited for his flight to leave for Chicago for his return trip home to Janesville.


What happened next he will never forget.


"Two people (boarding the plane with Kettle) said they didn't want to fly with a baby killer," he said.


Kettle had heard about war protests and demonstrations taking place back home from soldiers arriving in Vietnam. Still, he wasn't prepared for what he experienced when he returned.


"I got three Purple Hearts," he says, his voice cracking and trailing off.


Kettle also recalls a time in 1970 when members of a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post—many World War II vets themselves—nearly threw he and another Vietnam vet out of the building.


"They said our war wasn't a war," Kettle said.


Al Pacheco of Janesville knows how Kettle feels. When he returned home from Vietnam in 1967, anti-war protesters greeted him at the airport.


"It looked like I was facing the enemy again," he said.


Pacheco, who was denied VFW membership when he came home, also heard veterans of previous wars downplay whether what he'd been through had been a "real" war.


"When you have more than 58,000 killed and 100,000-plus wounded, that's a war," he said.


VVA chapter turns 25

Kettle, 63, and Pacheco, 69, are members of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 236, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. Kettle says the chapter formed in 1986 in response to a lack of respect and acknowledgement that Vietnam veterans received from other veterans' organizations.


In addition to bringing Vietnam veterans together, Kettle said the chapter has created a positive public image for veterans based on things they have done to help the community. Locally, these have included awarding 210 high school scholarships; speaking to area high school U.S. history classes; hanging flags at main entrances to the city; marching in parades; participating in Veterans Day and Memorial Day activities; providing military honors at veteran funerals; bringing the Wall That Heals traveling half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here; and organizing Support Our Troops rallies.


A change in attitudes

Negative images that portray Vietnam veterans as alcoholics, drug addicts and baby killers have changed in the past 40 years, local veterans say.


"I think there's (now) a large acceptance of the Vietnam vets," Kettle said.


That change, however, required great effort by local Vietnam veterans, Pacheco said.


"What we've done has won people over," he said.


"We became visible by doing things to help the community," added Bob Maves, 62, Janesville, a charter member of the local chapter.


Before the VVA chapter

Before the local chapter started—11 years after the war was over—Vietnam veterans primarily kept to themselves.


"I talked very little about it and just kept it inside," Kettle said.


"My best counselor was my wife, who let me vent," Pacheco said. "It was really tough. We didn't have the opportunity for debriefing or counseling before getting back into the mainstream (of life and work)."


Bob Engstrom, 63, of Janesville, served in Vietnam in 1968. He said he never found support from anybody other than this wife until he joined the local VVA chapter.


"I didn't talk about the war with anybody," he said. "It wasn't really a secret, but it was like nobody cared. It was like getting an F in school. You put it out of your mind as much as you could and went on with life."


Engstrom said he kept the nightmares and flashbacks to himself.


"It's like a sliver—nobody can do much about it," he said. "You pull it out and wait until it heals. Forty-three years later it hasn't healed, but it's gotten a lot better. It's easy to talk to the guys in the chapter because they know exactly what you're talking about."


Acceptance, respect

To finally be accepted and respected is heartwarming for local Vietnam veterans.


"We were doing what our country asked us to do," Kettle said. "So whether anybody believes in the war or not, we deserve respect."


That statement rings true for Pacheco as well.


"We were sent to do a job for our government. It's been an honor to serve this country," he said. "I think the world of the guys in this chapter. We all have something in common through what we've experienced.


"Whenever somebody is troubled, we're there to support each other and work through it."



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