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Sunday, March 31, 2013

NH Vietnam veterans at last receive the welcome home a soldier deserves

CONCORD – It was bad enough that a “Dear John” letter reached Al Dionne in a Southeast Asia jungle where he was trying to fight a war.

“She didn’t want to wait,” Dionne said of his girlfriend’s motivation to write him a breakup letter. ...

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CONCORD – It was bad enough that a “Dear John” letter reached Al Dionne in a Southeast Asia jungle where he was trying to fight a war.

“She didn’t want to wait,” Dionne said of his girlfriend’s motivation to write him a breakup letter.

Worse than even that was the reception the young soldier from Litchfield got when he returned to the States.

“I was booed, and that was at the Manchester airport,” Dionne said.

But on Saturday, Dionne was one of hundreds of Vietnam War veterans who finally got the homecoming denied them 40 years earlier. Several thousand people representing every living generation crammed into the hanger at the New Hampshire National Guard facility for the state’s first official Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.

With his current girlfriend by his side and five grandchildren surrounding him, Dionne and other veterans were cheered, thanked and celebrated in ways that couldn’t have happened in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.

“Closure,” Dionne said simply.

Closure, and a chance to educate younger generations, said the former U.S. Army serviceman who grew up in Litchfield and Nashua and now lives in Laconia.

From the U.S. involvement in the “Vietnam Conflict” in the mid-1960s to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, servicemen too frequently were either ignored when they returned to their civilian lives, or worse – some were reviled as “baby killers.”

But after heavy lobbying from Vietnam Vets, the U.S. Congress and Senate passed resolutions in 2007 proclaiming March 30 as national Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.

Last June, the New Hampshire legislature passed a proclamation designating March 30, 2013, as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day in the state.

“We want to say to every Vietnam veteran who is here, ‘Thank you. We are so grateful,’ ” U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte said during the ceremonies.

“It’s about time,” said former state Sen. Gary Lambert, R-Nashua, primary sponsor of the legislation that established the New Hampshire day.

Other speakers included U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Gov. Maggie Hassan and Maj. Gen. William N. Reddel II, adjunct general of the New Hampshire National Guard.

The address that brought the strongest response from the crowd was that of Bob Jones, of the Vietnam Veteran and Northeast POW/MIA Network.

Jones spoke of the shame of leaving soldiers behind. The hanger shook as a thousand or more voices chanted, “Bring them home, bring them home!”

Outside, veterans and family members milled around, greeting and hugging one another.

“Hey, good to see you!” one heavily bearded man in a leather jacket said to fellow veteran.

“How are you?”

“Rolling along.”

Such encounters were common for veterans, many of whom wore jackets that proclaimed “NAM Knights of America,” “Combat Vets Association” or “N.H. Veterans Association.” Some men wore ball caps that simply said “Vietnam Veteran.”

For some, the right to assert that honor comes at a dear cost. A respirator draped around him and unable to speak, Joseph Duclos stood with his wife, son and grandchildren.

Duclos was exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and now suffers from poor health, said his wife, Mary Duclos, of Franklin.

The belated thank-you didn’t salve all wounds of the past, but it was a nice gesture, she said. Especially considering the anguish of the veterans’ homecoming in the ’70s, she said.

“At least we’re not being spit at today,” Mary Duclos said.

Veteran Alan Bissonnette, of Canterbury, stood with his school-age grandchildren. He saw the welcoming as an educational opportunity.

“They don’t know anything about Vietnam,” he said.Bissonnette said he hopes the ceremony changes that for the many young boys and girls who attended with their families.

As for his grandchildren’s education about a war in which nearly 60,000 U.S. service members, and many more Vietnamese, lost their lives, Bissonnette said, “I’m doing my part.”

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashua Follow Meighan on Twitter @ Telegraph_PatM.