WACONIA, Minn. (WCCO) — After the wars in Korea and Vietnam, veterans returning home didn’t get a hero’s welcome. They say it was totally different from the way World War II vets were treated.
Both wars were deadly, with more than 36,000 American deaths in Korea, and 58,000 service members lost in Vietnam. WCCO’s Reg Chapman, a Gulf War veteran, sat down with some of the men who served on those front lines.
“You get the first taste of it when you get off the airplane and you never met so much humidity and so much heat in your life,” Marine Veteran John Bigalke said.
Bigalke will never forget his first moments in a foreign land.
“I was in infantry two months and artillery for 10 months,” Army Veteran Ron Kroells said.
Kroells says images of his time in Vietnam are sometimes more than he can bare.
“I was a young fella out of college, third year junior when I went into the service and I grew up a lot in that trip,” Navy Veteran Myron Karki said.
Karki dealt with life away from home, by taking pictures of his time in Vietnam.
“I think it’s helpful not to keep everything trapped inside,” Karki said.
Some of Karki’s work is hard to look at. Each photo tells a story, one of hardship, sacrifice and death. Stories that keep many who served awake at night, a nightmare that never ends.
“I met a lot of people from all over the country, a lot of guys, a lot of characters. I remember a lot of them,” Kroells said.
War creates a bond like no other between those who serve.
“This was our first place when we got to Korea,” Korean War Veteran Don Van Eyll said.
Van Eyll can easily access his time in country. His daughter put all his photos from the war in one binder.
“We had close calls,” he said.
Snapshots from more than half a century ago, moments in time frozen, never to be forgotten. What all remember most is how they were treated once the fighting stopped.
“Nothing was done in this country to recognize the efforts of the armed forces over there. All we had was the chaos in Washington, D.C.,” Karki said.
There was no hero’s welcome, no parades, no celebrations. Some were spit on or ignored, and told to hide their service to country.
“Our service was just as important as the wars before. We didn’t have any kind of welcome home and we probably deserved that,” Kroells said.
Swapping war stories inside the Waconia American Legion Post 150 is therapeutic for these veterans.
“Part of the problem these days with the mental illness, particularly with the military, is they keep it locked up,” Karki said.
They know this therapy will continue once they board a plane and head to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials dedicated to their service. They are ready to remember their comrades that made the ultimate sacrifice.
“You never forget,” Kroells said.
And to look their war experience back in the eye again.
These vets, along with others, are going to Washington, D.C., next week. They’ll meet with local lawmakers to visit Arlington National Cemetery as well as War Memorials.
Reg Chapman and WCCO Photojournalist Tom Aviles are going along. We’ll let you know when you can see their reports.