LAWTON — When Pat Mitchell came home from Vietnam in 1967 he was spit on.
Mitchell returned to the United States by way of California. At the airport, he found himself the target of protesters, something he's never fully understood.
Friday morning, Mitchell and about 200 other Vietnam veterans were welcomed home officially with a ceremony at Fort Sill. Soldiers and civilians lined a route on the post as buses full of veterans made their way to the Rinehart Fitness Center. What Mitchell saw as he marched inside helped ease some of the pain inflicted 46 years ago.
In the Vietnam era, service members usually came home alone, not with their units, Mitchell said. But Friday's ceremony was a huge group celebration.
“It's probably one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me,” Mitchell said.
“When I landed, I was spit on. This has been a much better day.”
Mitchell drove to Fort Sill from Topeka, Kan., to be a part of the ceremony and a weekend of activities. He retired a lieutenant colonel and has a son who has followed in his Army footsteps.
“To hear someone say that our service was appreciated makes me feel like it was all worth it,” he said.
‘Little bit of closure'
The ceremony was part of a series of activities at military bases and posts across the country, culminating in a national celebration in Washington, D.C., in 2025 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Ted Williams, 64, served in fire bases near Khe Sanh in 1968-69 and again in 1970-71. He is a member of Lawton's Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.
“It's a long time coming,” Williams said Friday. “When I got back they were throwing eggs and calling us baby killers. I landed in San Francisco, and I got into a fight at the airport. I knocked a guy out. Then I went into the bathroom and changed into my civilian clothes. It was a horrible time.”
He said he was proud to see so many veterans, and hopes it provides at least some healing.
“I'm glad it's happening,” he said. “It gives me a little bit of closure.”
Lawton resident J.C. Humphries, 70, did two tours in Vietnam with the Army and finished his service in 1969.
He has been to welcome home ceremonies for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan — something he takes great satisfaction in.
“This is awful late, but I'll take it,” he said. “To me when we welcome them back from Afghanistan and Iraq, that feels like my homecoming.”
The stands in the Rinehart Fitness Center were filled with active-duty soldiers, many in the early stages of their military careers.
They provided a rousing welcome as the veterans marched into the building, many wearing hats or shirts emblazoned with the names and numbers of their former units.
Active-duty Pfc. Hannah Delfs, of Ohio, was on hand to greet them.
She purchased flowers to hand out to as many veterans as she could.
She was overcome with emotion during the ceremony.
“I felt like I needed to make up for what other people didn't do when these men and women came home,” she said.
“A lot of them came back and were treated like outcasts. They were doing their job. They were serving their country.”