WASHINGTON — Forty years ago Friday, the last American troops left Vietnam after more than a decade of war. They returned to the United States different men from when they left, as different as the country to which they returned.
Though the fall of Saigon two years later is considered by some veterans to be a bigger milestone, March 29, 1973 marks the day the last combat troops left Vietnam.
Under sunny skies and warming spring temperatures, a few of those veterans visited the memorial Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Friday. They paused in front of the names of fallen friends and comrades.
Bill Rudroff wiped tears off his face as he stopped in front of the name of his best friend, Ralph Alton Branson Jr., who died March 17, 1968. Branson was 20 years old when he was killed at Quang Ngai.
“Not a day goes by that I see a river or mountain that doesn’t remind me of him,” Rudroff said. The two friends grew up together in a small town in Missouri, and their mothers worked together.
“He’ll always be my hero," Rudroff said. "I understand why he had to go. He had a girlfriend he had planned on marrying when he got home. Just one of those hometown guys.”
Mementos placed at the wall ranged from American flags to roses, from a napkin to a bracelet hung by Gary Hellwig, who fought with the Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1966. The bracelet was placed there in honor of his brother, Lance Cpl. Steven Hellwig, who died in Vietnam at age 19.
“My experiences, I can’t go into detail," Hellwig said. "There are some things I just can’t talk about, don’t talk about. It’s a hell of a thing to kill a person. It’s worse to have your friends who you love, your buddies, your brothers, they’re there one minute and gone the next. There’s no fixing that.”