FORT SILL — Vietnam veteran Billy Nash pulls a folded white paper from his pocket, scans the list of names and places a mark next to his group's latest arrival at Rinehart Gymnasium.
He'll repeat this process several more times before 10 p.m. Tuesday, when more soldiers fresh from a tour in Iraq will be welcomed home.
Nash wants everyone present to be counted. He remembers a time when no one seemed to care.
So while many Oklahomans spend their summer days fretting over a sagging economy or whether the Sooners will bolt for the Pac-10, Nash and his Vietnam veteran brothers spend their time remembering we are still fighting a war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's why Chapter 751 of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Lawton — Oklahoma's largest such organization — attends every deployment or re-deployment ceremony at Fort Sill.
The group has done so, without fail, since soldiers were first deployed in the aftermath of 9/11.
"We've had as many as 50 people show up for a ceremony before and probably as few as two,” said Nash, 72. "But we never miss. We just want to show our support for the troops.”
Lawton's Vietnam veterans first appeared at a deployment ceremony to send off one of Nash's young friends. They then showed up unannounced for the next ceremony and then another. Soon, their presence morphed into something of much greater meaning. Before long these veterans were healing old wounds.
"A lot of our guys were called 'baby killers' and spit on when they came home,” said Norm Windsor, who at 78 still vividly remembers spending 1968 in the jungles of Vietnam. "So our experience wasn't what theirs is. … When I returned to the U.S., I was told to put my uniform away, keep my head down and my mouth shut.
"We want them to know we fully support them and their mission.”
J.C. Humphries, a veteran of two Vietnam tours, gazes across a packed gymnasium of flag waving, sign-shaking friends and relatives ready to welcome their soldiers home. He cracks a smile, saying, "Makes me feel good to see they're getting what we didn't get.”
The moment sinks in and Humphries adds, "We feel like this is our homecoming, too.”Slideshow: Welcome Home