BELOIT

They served in tanks.

They survived the Tet Offensive.

They signed up to do their duty.

But when they returned home, people treated them poorly, and few back in the States ever said, “Thank you and welcome home.”

On Thursday, Vietnam-era veterans and Gold Star families who lost loved ones in the war were honored at the Independence Day celebration at Beloit’s Riverside Park. The Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra played patriotic favorites as the veterans walked on stage to receive medallions that said “Welcome home, thank you for your service to our nation.”

For many veterans, it was about time.

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Vietnam Veteran Jim Wilson wears his original dog tags Thursday while attending a special “Welcome Home” Fourth of July event for Vietnam-era vets and Gold Star families who lost loved ones in the war in Beloit.

Jim Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in communications from 1971-72.

“We came home and got an unwelcome ceremony at O’Hare Airport,” Wilson said.

The hallways were lined with protesters shouting and swearing at him, he said.

“It was brutal,” Wilson said. “We had to walk all the way from the airplane through all those protesters all the way down to get our baggage.”

All he could think was, “I’m just like you guys.”

Except instead of taking his chances on his draft number or “running to Canada,” he enlisted so he would have more control over his job choices.

Thursday’s ceremony was long overdue, but Wilson appreciated it.

“You know, you go to Memorial Day parades, and the veterans salute each other,” Wilson said. “But this is different because everybody is really recognizing us. We never really got recognized when we came home.”

Charles Wilson, no relation to Jim Wilson, was a U.S. Army tanker. He served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

It was his mother and father who got him through the worst times in Vietnam. His father was a Baptist minister, and his mother used to write him letters. They always included a Bible verse. He also kept a small Bible with him.

“It was those letters from home that kept me going,” Charles Wilson said.

Like his fellow vets, he was treated terribly at the airport, he said. When they landed in San Francisco, they changed out of their uniforms. It was a way to reduce the amount of abuse that came their way.

Thursday was important to him.

“It’s about time they did something for the Vietnam vets,” Charles Wilson said. “This is the first time I can recall that we got some recognition.”

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Vietnam Veteran and Purple Heart recipient Keith Royce wears a hat Thursday with a pin signifying his involvement in the Tet Offensive.

Keith Royce was a farm boy who lived outside of Beloit when he got drafted Nov. 2, 1965. He ended up going to officer candidate school and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the military police.

“I spent some time in Fort Gordon, Georgia, but I went to Vietnam in January 1968, and two weeks later, Tet happened,” Royce said.

The Tet Offensive was one of the largest military operations of the Vietnam War.

Royce was in charge of a platoon of military policemen with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade. They also patrolled the inner coastal waterways in Boston Whalers. It was on one of those patrols that he was hit by a sniper. The other time he was wounded was during a mortar attack on a base camp.

Royce recently returned from a VetsRoll trip, which was a “fabulous time.”

“I had tears in my eyes because I was so impressed,” Royce said.

Thursday made an impression on him, too.

Some of the people in the audience were his age, but it was primarily made up of his generation’s children and their grandchildren.

“They’re all out here honoring us,” Royce said. “That’s really neat.”

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