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Norm McDonald · Jul. 6, 2015

The date was July 4, 1985. Thirty years ago, Utah County Vietnam Vets came home from the war a dozen or more, as long as 20 years after we had physically left Vietnam. In the months preceding that date, a small group of vets were gathering money and help in putting together the Utah Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. At that point, it was just an idea; a dream as it were. Most of the committee were from Utah County, however, the memorial was for the State of Utah. One of the ideas to raise awareness and money was to have a few vets in the Freedom Festival Parade (Provo’s 4th of July) in downtown Provo, Utah. The committee had approached the local Vet’s Center to spread the word and ask any who might be willing to consider being in the parade that year. And that was how I learned about the memorial committee and the parade. Big Tom and I were in a vet’s group at the center during that time; the subject came up in one of our sessions.

Most in the group, including me and Tom, just laughed it off. Except during group, very few of us had publicly acknowledged our participation in that war; and a parade, are you kidding? The day approached and I had decided against it, and so had Tom. However, I received a phone call from Tom the night before the parade. He asked again whether I had thought about going. No, I told him. He laughed and said, “I was thinking maybe I would go wearing short pants, a Hawaiian shirt with my Purple Heart pinned to it.” I answered, “I guess if I was going, I could pin the Purple Heart to a T-shirt." Tom said, "I dare you to show up tomorrow.” I asked, “So have you decided to go?” I don’t know. We hung up.

The next morning, I thought about the parade and the reasons behind it and decided I would at least go down to the starting and visit with anyone I knew. I pulled into the parking lot on 9th East on the BYU campus and there was Tom, with short pants and a Hawaiian shirt. You have to know, Tom didn’t wear shorts. One leg was scarred awful, and the other was not there; he had lost it — hence his Purple Heart. I got out and milled around like the 20 or so vets who were there. Sheepish, shy and we all felt out of place and exposed. It was not typical of former soldiers, but there had never been American soldiers coming who were treated as we had been treated and/or ignored.

The first “float” in the parade was an Army duce and a half; simply a big Army truck. In the back of the truck were the local families of MIAs from Vietnam, one of whom many years later became a colleague of mine. Her father was shot down over Laos in 1966 and wasn’t recovered until a few years ago. We were to follow the truck as sort of an escort. We started down 9th East going south towards Center St. and I noticed a couple of the guys walking with some friends in the crowd who they knew were vets and were calling them out to the street. As they came out, other folks, families and friends started pushing out their brothers, fathers and sons into the street with us. By the time we had gone the 10 blocks to Center Street, there were about a 100 or so with us. The crowd were cheering and all standing.

As we neared University Ave. and Center St. intersection in central Provo, about nine more blocks from 9th East, we had three or four hundred vets strung out for two blocks walking with us. The crowd by that time was deafening. I noticed a couple of young soldiers in dress uniform; I assumed they were an honor guard of sorts. Both snapped to attention and saluted as we walked by them. As we went back north, up University Ave, we passed the old Brigham Young High (now a library), and young girls were coming out in the street with carnations giving hugs and saying, “Welcome home.”

When we reached the end of the parade route and with Utah County Vietnam veterans strung out for three blocks, I realized, maybe I had finally come home from that war.

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