Tracy Booth has no ax to grind. He's no rabble-rouser. He doesn't begrudge anyone anything.
But he does wonder.
Every time he turns on the TV or looks at a newspaper and sees stories about troops returning from Iraq to hero's welcomes, he wonders ...
Why didn't that happen to him? And to the other 2.6 million troops who served America in Vietnam?
The 62-year-old Booth, a sales rep for a roofing contractor, was coming home from a business trip recently at the Salt Lake airport when he walked straight into a pep rally. The commotion was for two uniformed soldiers coming back from Iraq. A colonel was there to shake their hands. People were cheering. The media was there. A huge banner welcomed them back.
"I am not trying to throw cold water on the party or show disrespect to the returning vets. They deserve all the attention and praise," Booth says. "But gee whiz, we didn't get that. We lost 3,000 people a week and the hippies spit on us when we came back."
In 1967, when he returned from service in Vietnam, Booth remembers, "I got off the bus in Nephi in the middle of the night and walked home with my sea bag over my shoulder. There was no brass band. Carole Mikita didn't interview me or anything."
He'd joined the Navy as soon as he graduated from Juab High School, Class of '64. He was 17 and wanted an adventure. The next thing he knew he was part of a helicopter unit rescuing airmen out of the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam.
"All they had to do was make it to the water and we'd get them out," he remembers. "If John McCain had got to the water he wouldn't have gone to prison."
He was deployed in Vietnam for most of 1966, when the war was escalating and he got hazardous duty pay just for working on the flight deck. But he was never shot at and never shot at anyone something for which he, his wife and their five children will be forever grateful.
"If the Navy taught me anything it was that I ought to go back to school," says Booth, who enrolled at Snow College, transferred to Weber State and graduated four years later with a degree in business management. He got his schooling paid by the GI Bill, but he was never paid much in the way of thanks.
"I thought it was ironic that the airlines would let you fly half-price back then if you were in the military but you had to
wear your uniform," Booth says. "On the other hand, the Navy was cautioning us, 'Don't wear your uniform.' Especially if you were flying through San Francisco."
"It was a different time," Booth remembers. "The culture was entirely different. There was a lot of hippyness. If you were serving in the armed forces you were part of the problem. I never had any trouble personally. No one spit at me. But nobody offered to buy me a beer in the airport either. Nobody cared. And that war wasn't any less popular than this one."
The difference is, in this one no one's taking it out on the troops."I think what's happening now is completely appropriate," says the Vietnam vet who was awarded a medal, a Navy Unit citation, for the good work he did in the Gulf of Tonkin. "If you talk to any Vietnam veterans, I'll bet they'll tell you the same thing. They don't begrudge the attention the troops are getting today. But you look at the firetrucks, the parades, the sirens, and compare that to what we came home to, and you can't help thinking, 'What's wrong with this picture?'"
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.