OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Bill Behrens had two very different homecoming experiences when he returned from combat in Vietnam in 1970.
The returning Marine corporal stopped in Los Angeles before transferring to a flight home to Flint, Mich.
“When I flew into Los Angeles and was changing planes, I had people throw things at me, which were rose petals,” Behrens said, “and yelled at me some obscenities and said the rose petals represented the innocent Vietnamese that I killed.”
Behrens, 66, of Yukon, said he landed in Michigan about 2 a.m. and started walking home from the airport in his uniform with his duffel bag over his shoulder. The second car to pass pulled over and the driver asked him where he lived.
“The gentleman who took me to my door thanked me for my service,” he said.
Behrens went inside, walked into his bedroom and went to sleep.
“My parents didn't know I was back until I came down for breakfast,” Behrens said.
As the U.S. Defense Department makes plans to mark in 2025 the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Fort Sill and Lawton volunteers have organized events Friday and Saturday — including a welcome home ceremony for all the Vietnam veterans, especially those who never had a happy homecoming.
Pat Hollis, 68, of Lawton, is one of the volunteers spearheading the events.
“Fort Sill and Lawton will be one of the first to hold a huge celebration,” Hollis said. “There are going to be all kinds of celebrations all over the nation to work up to this monumental celebration in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the ending of the Vietnam War.”
Hollis said about 1,500 people have indicated they will attend the events so far, but more veterans and civilians are welcome to participate.
Marcus Whitt II, 65, of Edmond, is going to the ceremony and is excited to talk to other veterans.
“It's more about being there and a part of a group, knowing that others are just like me there. I'm just looking forward to being around a bunch of guys, you know, soldiers, sailors, Marines, anybody that served in that era, and see what they have done with their lives,” Whitt said.
No one wanted to talk to him about his experiences in Vietnam when he came home, he said.
Whitt was an Army sergeant and a Green Beret when he returned from Vietnam in 1970. After finishing his service with the military, he went to Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa.
“I learned very quickly that no one really cared that I served in the service, and they didn't really want to know. There were a few of us there that were Vietnam vets. We pretty much kept our mouths shut, went to school, did our studies and moved on,” Whitt said. “That's pretty much what I did for years and years.”
Whitt said even his father, a World War II veteran, didn't want to talk to him about Vietnam.
It wasn't until the mid-1980s that Whitt felt comfortable talking about his service.
“We (a reserve unit) went to Washington, D.C., and went to the Vietnam Wall. That's the first time I have been to it. I broke down, it was very emotional for me and, up until that point in time, I could not read about Vietnam, I couldn't talk about it. There wasn't anything I really could do to deal with in that era until I went to the wall and seen some of the friends I had had on there, giving their all,” he said.
Whitt retired from the Army Reserves in 2008 as a command sergeant major.
“It's been wonderful over the past 10 years to watch the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return from their tour of duty and be welcomed with open arms,” Whitt said. “But on the other side of the coin, as a Vietnam veteran, you feel very shunned and disappointed in the way you were treated when you returned. You learn to live with it.”
After finishing his time in the Marines in 1972, Behrens returned to Oklahoma to continue his education at Central State University, now the University of Central Oklahoma.
He still feels uncomfortable talking about his time in the military.
“Unless you have experienced combat, you can't talk to other people about it, they can't relate. I think most people who have been in combat don't really like to talk about it,” Behrens said. “There's a lot of things that are unpleasant about it and think that's probably why VFWs and American Legions survive today, because veterans can go in there and have a beer and talk about those types of situations if they need to.”