For years I had been hearing stories that when American troops returned home from Vietnam, they were spat upon by anti-war protesters. The stories were usually very specific. A soldier, fresh from Vietnam duty, wearing his uniform, gets off the plane at an American airport, where he is spat upon by "hippies." For some reason, in the stories it is always an airport where the spitting allegedly happened, and it is always "hippies" who allegedly did the spitting.

In recent years, as we all know, there has been an undeniable shift in the public's attitude toward the men who fought the Vietnam War. The symbols of this new attitude are many -- the Vietnam Memorial in Washington is the most dramatic, but the box-office successes of such movies as "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" also are testimony that, while the nation may still be divided over the politics of the war, the soldiers themselves are finally being welcomed home with warmth and gratitude.Yet even while the country has begun to tell the Vietnam veterans that they are loved and respected, the stories have continued to ciruclate: When those veterans returned from Vietnam, they were spat upon. usually in airports. By hippies.

But did that make sense? Even during the msot fervent days of anti-war protest, it seemed that it was not the soldiers whom protesters were maligning. It was the leaders of gobernment, and the top generals -- at least that is how it seemed in memory. One of the most popular chants during the anti-war marches was, "Stop the war in Vietnam, bring the boys home." You heard that at every peace rally in America. "Bring the boys home." That was the message.

I raised the question in my syndicated newspaper column. Were you spat upon when you returned from Vietnam?

I did not ask the question lightly, or out of idle curiosity. It seemed to me that if the spitting-on-soldiers stories were true, we should know it. If they were myth, we should know that, too. I asked the potential respondents to provide approximate dates, places and circumstances.

The response was astonishing. From every section and corner of the country, well over a thousand people took the time to sit down, put their thoughts on paper, and tell me what happened when they returne dto the United States from Vietnam. Virtually no one sent a letter with a simple confir,mation or denial of being spat upon; the letters were long, sometimes rambling, invariably gripping essays on what it felt like to come back home after that war. These are the stories -- some shocking, many disturbing, some loving -- that I have compiled in "Homecoming."

*****

Paul Edward Jenkins, Cincinnati

In early February 1972, I was in the honolulu airport -- in uniform -- with 200-plus other GIs who were returning to the world We were in Hawaii for a refueling; it was our first step on American soil, and it was very late at night.

Told to report back to the plane in an hour, the vast majority of us headed immediately for a cold one in the airport lounge. Stopping to buy a newspaper, I ended up about 50 feet behind the line moving toward the bar.

Two young guys -- complete with beards, long hair, John Lennon glasses and garbed in the appropriate apparel that the times dictated -- came into sight. It occurred to me that one of them resembled my best friend back home.

One fellow was leaning against the wall, the other half-kneeling, half-sitting on the floor. Their backpacks were beside them, and it was rather obvious that they were simply waiting on a plane. They weren't really protesting much of anything. No signs. Nothing.

My initial thought was, wow, "real people." And although I was a bit conservative at the time, I thought, "my people." It was great to be home.

As I drew nearer, they began with some remarks and grins to each other, and then directed them toward me. Their remarks and tone escalated very quickly from crude, to rude, to vulgar.

"My people" were angry. At me. It blew me away.

It would be ludicrous, all these years later, to pretend to remember exactly what was siad. But there is no forgetting the spitting.

They aimed at my feet. They missed. I kept walking, to the tune of "baby killer, baby killer."

Stand there and take it? Yes. I took it. It never occurred to me to do anything else.

When I entered the bar, I found several waitresses wiping ahstrays, and a bartender wxplaining to 200 Vietnam veterans that the loung had closed five minutes earlier, and she was really sorry, but no, they couldn't serve us coffee, either.

*****

Bob Boughton, Fredericktown, Ohio

I have a ture story that involves a "hippie."

I was recovering from injuries received in Vietnam at a military hospital near Philadelphia. While waiting for a bus home there, an elderly woman came up to me, looked me square in the face, and called me a hired killer.

But as I said, my story included a "hippie." A young lady dressed in bell-bottoms, love beads and a peace symbol came up to me as the elderly woman walked away. She looked me in the face and told me she was sorry for the way the returning vets were being treated.

I never got the chance to thank her, nor even got her name. But I could never forget her face and those few kind words.

*****

M.J. Fenrich, Leander, Texas

I would like to get my 2 cents' worth in. I think these stories about spitting are a lot of bull. I am a 30-year veteran and served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. During my military career I received nothing but respect from all the civilians I came in contact with.

My Vietnam tour was from June 1968 to May 1969. I served by tour of duty at Bien Hoa Air Base. During this time my oldest son, still on active duty today in Germany with the U.S. Army, did his tour at Long Binh about seven miles from Bien Hoa. At no time have I eve rheard him state that he had been spit on. From Vietnam I went directly to Berlin for a four-year tour of duty. I had many occasions to visit East Berling, always in uniform, where I came in contact with epople of the Oriental race who were obviously from Vietnam. My Vietnam service medals were always easily recognizable by these individuals, and even they did not spit on me.

It has been my experience that people who come up with statements such as this are the same type who walk around with a chip on their shoulders just begging for trouble. Next time you see a bunch of "Vietnam veterans" on television walking in a parade, take a good close look at them. Most of them look like the hippies that were supposedly doing all the spitting back in the '60s.

Frankly, I don't buy it.

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Gary C. Peters, Carlisle, Pa.

In Vietnam I only tried to do my job and maintain my sanity in a world gone crazy. I served in Vietnam from May 1969 to May 1970 in the 101st Airborne and spent 11 of my 12 months at a small landing zone. I was not a hero. But I also did nothing to shame myself or my country.

when I returned from Nam I was an emotional wreck, but I kept it all to myself so my family and friends thought I was OK and acted like I had never left. I entered civilian life with no problems and continued withy my life. But nobody ever gave a damn about what the Vietnam vet had to endure in that war or the emotional scars that never go away.

No, I was never spat upon by a civilian, I was just ignored by a country that didn't care. Then a few years later came the biggest insult to all Vietnam vets. We weren't spat upon by one person, but by the entire country.

I'm referring to the "heroes' welcome" given to the hostages held in Iran. When Iran finally released the hostages the entire country opened up its arms and its heart to their return. I'm sorry for what happened to them, but I was very bitter about their reception home and the praise and admiration they received.

I'm fortunate that I returned from Nam alive and was able to handle the emotional pain of spending a year in hell. But many returning vets needed more help, and if the country woul dhave opeend its hearts to us, like it did to the Iran hostages, then the pain would have been easier to bear.

A Vietnam vet could take being spat on by one person. What broke our hearts was being spat on by our country.

*****

Kenneth L. Guillory, Barksdale, La.

May I share my homecoming experience with you?

I came home from Southeast Asia on Aug. 19, 1971. I was wearing my Air Force uniform when my plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport. I was not met by any spitting "hippies."

However, while I was standing in line at the ticket counter, there was a well-dressed gentleman behind me who asked sarcastically, "How many people did you kill over there?" I walked past him and proceeded to my destination.

On board the plane, I noted several other Vietnam vets in uniform. The stewardesses would not allow us to sit in the coach section, and insisted that we sit in the first-class section. These women did not spit on us, nor did they inquire as to how many people we killed.

Each stated how happy they were that we were able to come home safely.

As for my job in Vietnam, I was a crash/rescue team member and killed no one. Instead I can happily state that I was responsible for helping to save the lives of several of our aircrew members whenever their planes came in disabled.

*****

Joe Bartholomew, Canton, Ohio

In retrospect, putting aside the issue of the rightness or wrongness of the war or how it was handled, all I know is that when my country asked me for help, I answered the call and to this day, in spite of everything, I'm proud of that. What's sad is that when the smoke cleared and most of us were lucky enough to come home, our calls for help remained unanswered.

Yes, we were spat upon! You want dates, places and circumstances? For approximately eight years, over thousands of acres in Vietnam, we were spat upon -- not with a drop or two of saliva, but rather with millions of gallons of Agent Orange. Yes, we were spat upon by an older gentleman in a red, white and blue outfit who answers to the name of "Uncle Sam." Thanks to him, his chemical companies, and "Operation Ranchhand," you might say we were spat upon and didn't even know it.

The real issue isn't whether or not we received a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue. Personally, my famiy and friends telling me that it was good to have me home again was all the welcome home I ever needed.

However, I don't hink it's unreasonable for us as veterans to want and even expect medical assistance and/or compensation for war-related health problems that have all but devastated whole families.

Yes, we were spat upon --- in Vietnam with Agent Orange and again when we came home with Uncle Sam's indifference to our plight.

*****

John Leary, Batavia, Ill.

Most returning veterans were 18 to 22 years old. At that relatively young age it is almost impossible to express having your feelings hurt an dhurt deeply, especially after trying to prove your "manhood" in Vietnam. In my opinion, most veterans were not even sure what they felt at the time. We returned to political turmoil, peace marches, anti-war and anti-veteran activities ... and one giant lack of appreciation.

Imagine helping your neighbor move a piano for a full day. when the task is complete the neighbor goes in his house wihtout a wrod and closes the door. Most veterans moved a piano for over a year (and much worse) and the door was closed on all of us.

I will remember vividly for the rest of my life leaving Vietnam on a plane loaded with Marines. As the plane took off, the cheering and tears exploded with the feeling of being off the ground. I remember looking down at the scarred landscape, waiting until we got enough altitude to be completely safe. I remember landing in San Francisco and the wild cheering among us in the plane and the feeling of making it home. Then I remember walking by myself through the San Francisco airport to complete indifference. It was then I realized something wasn't right. My loving and close family was elated to have me home, but there was no sense of appreciation from anyone -- my friends and people I knew never said anything. No one knew what to say.

The hurt stuck in real deep, and it is hard to think about. It is even harder to think about good Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice -- they died for their country. Not Hollywood dead, not like in war movies, but dead and gone just like warriors in World War I, World War II, Korea and all the others. All their families got hit with nothing. All the countless others that left chunks of their young and healthy bodies behind returned not as heroes but to a complete lack of appreciation.

I think the turning point was when the hostages came home from Iran. The country went wild and it was great to me to see our country unified and celebrating. But I know, there were not many veterans who didn't envy the hostages and feel despair about their own "return."

I marched in the big veterans' parade in Chicago last summer. I remember the parade just forming up and leaving Navy Pier to start the parade route. one woman was standing alone and clapping her hands and sayig "Welcome home." I cried, it felt so good, even 17 years laters. I felt so good to be marching with thousands of Marines who were bursting with pride singing the Marine Corps Hymn. I have always been proud and it was a chance to celebrate that pride. To see people step forward with a picture of their dead son or brother ... to see disabled veterans step out to shake hands .. for all of us to wipe a little spit off our hearts.

"To wipe a little spit off our hearts." It would be difficult to imagine a more powerful phrase than that one, and to analyze it too deeply is not appropriate; Mr. Leary has said it as well as it can be said.

Quickly, though, just the point that what Mr. Leary and so many others are talking about, clearly, is catharsis. For Leary, the catharsis came on the day of the parade. For large numbers of others, the catharsis comes when they visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. For the thousand-plus people who wrote to me, there was probably a measure of cahtarsis just in the act of writing.

*****

Danny Kelly, Santa Cruz, Calif.

Was I spit on at the airport? No. Was I able to find a job when a prospective employer found out I was a Nam vet? No. Was I able to get a date with a girl if she knew I was a Nam vet? No. Was I even welcome at the local American Legion post as a Nam vet? No. Were my parents able to tell people without accusations that their son had just returned from three years in Vietnam? No.

I returned in September 1969 and was in Atlanta, Ga. I denied being a vet until recently because I was repeatedly told that Nam vets had flashbacks and could freak out on the job. I was repeatedly asked how I could live with myself after killing all those innocent people. I coul dhave dwealt with being spit on by a hippie. I probably would have broken him in two. Being 21 and not being able to get a job, a date, a place to live, or a drink with other vets was the hard part. I still remember.

*****

Patrick W. Gray, Bellevue, Neb.

When I cam back from Vietnam, I was dumb enough to wear my dress uniform in the San Francisco International Airport. This was on April 15, 1970. A nicely dressed woman in her 20s blocked my path and hissed "(expletive) murderer" in my face.

I don't mean to make it sound melodramatic, but I've never forgotten it. And the dozen or so Vietnam veterans I've talked to (I can't talk to World War II vets) all told similar stories.

I guess guys who lose a war get pretty unpopular.

*****

George Firehammer, Spotsylvania, Va.

I have heard about the spitting stories. I was never spat upon or even harassed. When I returned to my hometown, I was greeted as a patriot, with an interview by our local paper replete with frontg page story and photo. I believe most hometown folks were supportive of the troops and our difficult mission.

The only harrassment I ever received was a half-cocked remark from an uncle who asked, "What's your hang-up, George? I understand all these Vietnam combat veterans have some problem." Considering the source, I passed it off. I believe that most of us were well received, although we probably felt unfomfortable adjusting, some having guilty about surviving while many of their compatriots didn't make it.

I wish some attention would be paid to the humor, compassion and heroism exemplified by our men in Vietnam. I could give you many such stories that would counterbalance the classic image of "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket." I remember one of my corpsmen staying up with a Vietnamese woman in her 70s who was suffering with a high temperature. We were in an ambush site near a village, and he ministered to htis woman all night until her fever broke. That one didn't make headline status. I wish the American people could know what value they have in our men who served with honor and compassion.

*****

John J. Quirk, South Holland, Ill.

After serving in Vietnam from June '66 to June '67, I returned to the States to a wonderful reception.

It was the first week in June. I landed at Travis Air Force Base in California, went to the Oakland Army Terminal, and was cleared to go home for 30 days' leave. I bought a ticket for a flight to Chicago that was scheduled to depart at approximately 4 p.m. Pacific Time. As I walked through the terminal, I noticed several long-haired people but thought nothing of it until I was approached by a young couple who stoped me and asked if I were returning from Nam.

As they were smiling and seemed friendly, I said yes. With that they both started calling me names -- Baby Killer and Fascist Dog, among others -- before the girl spat at me as her friend shoved me.

An airport security guard saw this and came over to help me. The couple just walked away and melted into the crowd. The security officer calmed me down and stayed with me until my flight left.

this may not seem so bad, but when you are a wide-eyed 20-year-old who is soon to learn that he was lied to by his country and made fun of by a lot of people who would never serve in any way, it hurts.

I have never told a soul what I tell you here but it is true and I will swear on it.

*****

David Alvarez, San Jose, Calif.

I apologize for taking so long to send this letter. I have a difficult time writing about things I would just as soon forget. You see, most of us still want to put the war behind us. For me it's been 16 years, and it's a shame that ridiculous movies like "First Blood" and "Apocalypse Now" had to be made before anyone cared enough to ask questions about us and our experiences.

I was in the U.S. Navy from 1967 until 1971. During that time I experienced two spitting incidents.

The first time I was in transmit from my ship to a temporary duty station. It was the fall of 1970 and I was in Sacramento, Calif., bus station. I was wearing my dress blue uniform with my Vietnam service ribbons, and I was carrying my sea bag over one shoulder. I was confronted by five anit-war protesters -- two females and three males. They stopped to question me about my feelings about the war. I declined to comment. Suddeny one of the females began calling me a baby killer and spat on me.

Striking her would have been playing right into their hands, since I saw one of the group had a tape recorder and a camera ready to record my reaction. I'm sure they hoped I would react violently. However, I just walked away.

The second incident occurred when I returned from JVietnam in the fall of 1971. I was in my dress uniform in San Francisco airport waiting for my wife to arrive from out of state, when a guy ran up to me, called me a war monger, spat on me and ran off. I started after him, but I lost him in the airport crowd.

Both of these incidents have bothered me for years. Because in both instances I felt like I was in a fishbowl and everyone around me was waiting for a violent reaction which would confirm their suspicions that all returning veterans were baby killers and drug addicts.

These and other incidents made me question, to this day, why I went. And who did I really fight for? I finally realized that I fought for my country and for my own beliefs.

*****

May C. Eckhardt, Sturgis, Mich.

While my son was home on leave from Vietnam, a Presbyterian minister refused to shake his hand as we were leaving church. He said he could not and would not shake my son's hand because of the killing my son was involved in. Needless to say, my son doesn't venture to church very often, even after all these years and different ministers.

*****

Bud Jones, Chicago

I was there two times, 24 months in all, Marine Corps pilot; when I returned each time I returned to a supportive group of friends and family.

I've never even heard a harsh word cast in my direction, let alone a spit!

Also, of all the guys I flew with -- maybe more than 100 aviators in all (in my two squadrons) -- everyone has made a good adjustment to the real world. No one is whine boxing around for a parade in their honor and for the most part, the Nam is in the past, where it belongs.

*****

Kay Schwartz, Addison, Ill.

In the 1960s my husband and I were in our 20s and raising three little boys.

the drug culture was in and soldiers were not the only ones being spat upon. We were working hard trying to raise our children and teach them what we considered the real values of life. The media, college professors, students, authors, movie makers, etc., were all telling us that our values were pure manure.

We were told that drugs were fine -- they didn't do anyone or society any harm. We were told that we were materialistic asses because we wanted a nice home for ourselves and our children. We were told we were immoral because we believed in democracy and this country. It was like being bombarded all day every day with utter disrespect for all we were trying to live and teach our children to value.

Every night there was the war in Vietnam in our living rooms. War was no longer just for soldiers -- it was there in color and all its horrors every day on the TV with our children asking over an dover, why were our soldiers doing that? And the media telling us over an dover that our boys were on dope, were murderers and fools for being soldiers. We coulnd't answer any of the questions for ourselves or our children.

So we shut if off and shut it out. My husband and I love to read. We read everything we can get our hands on, but for the 10 years after the Vietnam War we read nothing about the war. It took us 10 years to be able to start to read again about that period, and to be able to discuss it.

On the 10th anniversary of the end of the war, my son made me up a banner on the computer, which we put across the front of the garage. The banner said "Vietnam -- 10 years -- We Remember. To Those Who Died -- Thank You. To Those Who Returned -- Welcome Home."

We put the banner up at 6 in the morning before my son left for college. At 7 in the morning I was sitting on the front proch having coffee and a young man came by delivering telephone books. He went up to the garage and read the banner. He came over to my porch and put the telephone books down, and stood there crying.

He said, "Lady, I love your sign."

I started crying and said, "I'm sorry it's 10 years late."

We were both crying, and then he said, "Lady, it is never too late."

He left still crying and I sat there crying for all of us.