HELENA — Vietnam Veterans were honored Monday morning at the American Legion Post #2 in Helena and welcomed home. A reception many veterans from the era did not initially receive.
Ten years ago, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 255, which established "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day." The day is intended to honor the service of those veterans, their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families.
Returning to the United States after deployment is often an emotional time for service members. It’s the first time in months they're back home and get to see their families.
Soldiers who served in Vietnam did not always receive a warm welcome home like modern veterans, or the veterans that came before them. At the time, Vietnam veterans were ridiculed and harassed when they returned from war.
Helena resident and combat veteran John Quintrell experienced those personal attacks firsthand.
“When we landed at Travis Airforce Base the officer in charge said, ‘If I were you guys, I would not go out there in my uniform. I’d change into my civilian clothes,'” said Quintrell. “When we got to the front gate there were a lot of protesters out there, and when they opened the gate they started throwing produce hurling derogatory remarks about being a 'baby killer.'”
Like many men in the United States that served their country during the two-decade conflict, Quintrell didn’t have a decision about whether or not he’d serve. He was drafted.
“I had been gone for a year and didn’t have anything to do with that kind of stuff, so it really shook me,” explained Quintrell. “When I returned to my mother’s house, a man I loved and respected told me I should be ashamed of myself.”
More than 30,000 Montanans served in Vietnam. 268 of those service members died during the conflict and 22 have been recognized as prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA).
For 34 years, Quintrell kept his service in Vietnam to himself due to the reception he got coming home. In the 2000s, there was a resurgence of pride for Vietnam veterans, which encouraged Quintrell to reconnect with the men he served with.
“That reunion started a healing process that only buddies that serve together in war can experience. Families as well began to understand what their spouses and fathers went through,” said Quintrell.
Quintrell wrote a book about his experiences called “My 365 Days with the Wolfhounds in Vietnam 1968-1969: A Combat Veteran’s Journey” that chronicles his time overseas with the Army.
The former staff sergeant has spent time documenting the stories of other veterans so their families and others can hear about their time serving their country.
Quintrell has also advocated for veteran support and helped educate other Vietnam veterans about Veterans Affairs benefits that they earned through their service.
“A lot of guys haven’t even signed up with the VA, believe it or not. And so they’re out there suffering all kinds of issues from Agent Orange and PTSD and they really earned every benefit they have coming from them from the VA. So we teach them how to do it, how to file a claim, help them file a claim so they get the benefits they deserve,” he said.
A large number of Vietnam veterans returned home with invisible wounds and scars from their time overseas.
“Many suffered from depression, many avoided society and even their own families,” said Quintrell. “Two of my platoon members took their lives after being home for only one year.”
According to the VA, the annual number of veteran suicide deaths has exceeded 6,000 since 2008.
Help is available for anyone experiencing depression, PTSD or thoughts of suicide.
The Veterans Crisis Line offers support to veterans and their loved ones. They have veteran-specific suicide prevention information such as how to find nearby support, recognize warning signs, and information to connect with support via call (1-800-273-8255) , chat or text.