The Associated Press
The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 40 years ago Friday, and the date holds great meaning for many who fought the war, protested it or otherwise lived it.
While the fall of Saigon two years later is remembered as the final day of the Vietnam War, many had already seen their involvement in the war finished — and their lives altered — by March 29, 1973.
U.S. soldiers leaving the country feared angry protesters at home. North Vietnamese soldiers took heart from their foes' departure, and South Vietnamese who had helped the Americans feared for the future.
Many veterans are encouraged by changes they see. The U.S. has a volunteer military these days, not a draft, and the troops coming home aren't derided for their service. People know what PTSD stands for, and they're insisting that the government takes care of soldiers suffering from it and other injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Below are the stories of a few of the people who experienced a part of the Vietnam War firsthand.
'PATRIOTISM NEEDS TO BE CELEBRATED'
Jan Scruggs served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, and he conceived the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a tribute to the warriors, not the war.
Today, he wants to help ensure that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan aren't forgotten, either.
His Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is raising funds for the Education Center at the Wall. It would display mementos left at the black granite wall and photographs of the 58,282 whose names are engraved there, as well as photos of fallen fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"All their patriotism needs to be celebrated. Just like with Vietnam, we have to separate the war form the warrior," Scruggs said in a telephone interview.
An Army veteran, Scruggs said visitors to the center will be asked to perform some community service when they return home to reinforce the importance of self-sacrifice.
"The whole thing about service to the country was something that was very much turned on its head during the Vietnam War," Scruggs said.
He said some returning soldiers were told to change into civilian clothes before stepping into public view to avoid the scorn of those who opposed the war.
"What people seemed to forget was that none of us who fought in Vietnam had anything to do with starting that war," Scruggs said. "Our purpose was merely to do what our country asked of us. And I think we did it pretty well."
'MORE INTERESTED IN GETTING BACK'
Dave Simmons of West Virginia was a corporal in the U.S. Army who came back from Vietnam in the summer of 1970. He said he didn't have specific memories about the final days of the war because it was something he was trying to put behind him.
"We were more interested in getting back, getting settled into the community, getting married and getting jobs," Simmons said.
He said he was proud to serve and would again if asked. But rather than proudly proclaim his service when he returned from Vietnam, the Army ordered him to get into civilian clothes as soon as he arrived in the U.S. The idea was to avoid confrontations with protestors.
"When we landed, they told us to get some civilian clothes, which you had to realize we didn't have, so we had to go in airport gift shops and buy what we could find," Simmons said.
Simmons noted that when the troops return today, they are often greeted with great fanfare in their local communities, and he's glad to see it.
"I think that's what the general public has learned — not to treat our troops the way they treated us," Simmons said.
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