Mark Wick, who served in the Navy in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, said he wasn’t afforded much respect when he returned home.
“Not at all,” he said.
Wick stood behind the bar Thursday at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 and recalled his arrival back home.
When his ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, Wick said protesters dropped cans of paint onto the vessel’s deck from high above.
“Welcome home,” Wick said, dryly.
But, attitudes have changed, said Wick, the VFW’s commander, and the evidence was apparent Thursday — Veterans Day — in Craig.
In addition to American flags that lined Victory Way and events at Moffat County High School, two free meals were served to veterans and their families Thursday. American Northwest Realty served lunch, and the VFW served dinner.
“It’s come a long ways,” Wick said of the country’s appreciation of war veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans.
Bill Morgan, VFW senior vice commander, served with the Army in Vietnam between 1967 and 1968. On Thursday, while he cooked burgers on an outdoor grill for the hungry veterans inside the VFW, Morgan recalled the sting of a cold post-war reception.
“When we landed and we were getting ready to go home, they told us to not even wear our uniforms because of the dislike some people had of the military,” Morgan said. “Now, people are coming up to us and thanking us.
“It’s a whole different attitude.”
VFW member Dave Walters also served with the Army in Vietnam.
“It was rough coming back,” Walters said. “I got to thinking that the whole world hated anyone that was in Vietnam.”
Walters said the first time he had been thanked for his service was roughly 20 years after he returned home.
The thanks arrived in the form of a poem from his daughter.
“She thanked me for her freedom,” Walters said.
Despite the change in attitudes, Wick said his wounds nonetheless run deep. But, Veterans Day helps alleviate those feelings.
“Today is part of the therapy,” he said.
The therapy is not only from the recognition he and other Vietnam veterans now receive, it’s also from the recognition the VFW provides to younger soldiers returning from newer wars, Wick said.
“These younger kids coming home, you see the stress in their eyes,” he said. “The easier we can make it for them, the better we all are.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that when you come back from being in an environment of always being stressed out and tense, always expecting something to happen, you need time to decompress,” Morgan said.
Earlier in the day, broker associate Ernie Allen ladled hot soup for veterans and their families at American Northwest Realty. The business has hosted the Veterans Day meal for the past three years.
Black-eyed pea soup with ground beef, chicken kielbasa, and pork kielbasa was on the menu, broker associate Yvonne McAnally said.
“We tried to make it really meaty,” she said of the soup she and husband Roy McAnally prepared for the veterans. “We use it for snow machining.”
Yvonne estimated that more than 60 people attended the free lunch.
Roy, who owns the business, is a Vietnam-era Army veteran who served in Thailand from 1968 to 1970.
Roy said the annual event is an opportunity to thank veterans and give back to the community.
“We really do appreciate that we have so many young people today who are willing to step up and serve the country, and we appreciate all the old guys who did their tour of service, too,” he said.
Roy said he plans to host a Veterans Day lunch at his business for many years to come.
“We’re going to do it every year as long as we’re here,” he said. “We’d like to get down the road, look back and say, ‘We’ve done this for 25 years.’”
Marine Corps veteran Jim Meineke served in Korea from 1950 to 1953. He said he appreciates the McAnallys’ ongoing hospitality.
“It’s neat what they do,” Meineke said. “It’s really neat.”
Meineke said veterans are well taken care of in Northwest Colorado, partly due to their considerable numbers.
“When we were doing the survey for the (Department of Veterans Affairs) clinic, I think we had 700 or 800 (veterans) in town,” Meineke said. “And we had 2,200 in the Yampa Valley.”
Roy said Meineke’s figures were awe-inspiring, but not surprising.
“That sounds about right,” Roy said. “Being rural America, we seem to have a pretty deep appreciation for our country and the service our folks are doing. I’m amazed by the number of young people who come out of high school and go directly into service these days.”