In the '60s during the height of the U.S. troop escalation in the Vietnam War, my father placed a big bumper sticker on the front storm door of our Pottstown home with the following words - I SUPPORT THE TROOPS IN VIETNAM.
It didn't say he supported the war or the politicians whose bidding these drafted soldiers were sent to do. It simply stated he supported the troops. My father was ahead of his time in this way. Many people around the country blamed these men and women for the battle they were told to fight. But the servicemen performed their patriotic duty and came home to a boiling society that wouldn't allow them to return with the dignity they deserved.
My father was a career soldier who fought in World War II and Korea. He was in the Army reserves at the end of his last year when the fight in Vietnam was raging. One of my older cousins and a U.S. Marine told me that my Master Sergeant dad couldn't lead any more young men off to war. So he retired in 1967. He served more than two decades and within a year he died at the age of forty-six.
I looked at that sticker every day when I walked into our north end home wondering what it meant. And I'd think of the war protestors on college campuses trying to put the pieces together. How does my dad support these guys when everyone else seems to be at each others throat.
Several of my friends had older brothers who went off to Southeast Asia. I remember talking to them and how down they were when the one they looked up to had to leave home with a duffle bag hanging from their shoulder. They were proud and afraid at the same time. I never saw a protest in Pottstown as a kid, there may have been one but people in this blue collar area were busy making a living at one of the many factories in town trying to pay the bills more than to make a political statement. I'm sure there was talk and fear but people had to keep on working.
After the death of my father I'd accompany my mother to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville on a weekly basis. At times my brother Gary and sister Lisa would be along. I saw the wounded suffering from amputations and other serious injuries.
When you are born into a culture as an army brat, you are part of a family that extended far past your own. I could walk down the halls of the army hospital alone, without fear. These hurt men waiting in the halls to see a doctor would look up at me a twelve years old and say a couple words and give me a smile. And I'd answer them back as best as a preteen could. I never witnessed the worst of those who suffered but watched some who were recovering hobble by on crutches or sitting in wheelchairs wearing those baby blue colored pajamas.
We'd go into the commissary and my mom would buy groceries or other goods at the Post Exchange. There were always soldiers around us. We went as a family to see the doctors for inoculations or dental checkups. I spent many days at the post in my youth. I liked being there and around those heroes.
Every visit before heading home, I'd ask my mom to drive over to the landing pad to watch the military helicopters bringing in the wounded. They were transferred to a hospital truck with a big red cross painted on the side. My mom never hid this from me. It was part of the real world growing up in a military family.
Seeing this would get to my mom, but it wouldn't stop her from taking me there. We'd sit in the car quietly together and took it all in. I'm not sure how I felt watching the injured carefully tended to by other soldiers and nurses. But I now understood the meaning of the sticker on the door.
The Vietnam veterans weren't welcomed home after their days of combat were over. It took years for that to happen. The first time I photographed Vietnam vets at home was in Reading, Pa. 25 years ago this month when thousands lined the streets for a welcome home parade and then dedicated a new memorial in a city park.
I've had the honor of accompanying them to The Wall in Washington, D.C. The bus was silent on the way, veterans deep in thought. There were hugs and tears shed and flowers placed on graves. But it seemed like a healing process that day as the ride home was filled with loud chatter and laughter.
The dedication of the statue and memorial in Pottstown's Memorial Park was a great event back in 1989. I shot one of my favorite photos of an Airborne Ranger who had fought in Vietnam shaking the hand of the soldier statue. Sadly this veteran passed away last month. I knew him since I was a boy growing up in the same neighborhood.
They came home changed men forever, some were okay and got back to work while others continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I've gotten to know the local veterans from all wars and have the privilege of telling their stories working for The Mercury.
This past week was the latest welcome home held in Pottstown with veterans opening up about their daily lives fighting in Vietnam. Warriors Watch Riders motorcyclists made their way down High Street to show their respect along with the speeches, hand shakes and thanks to the men. It was a long time coming for some of these guys.
I will continue to cover the services and homecoming for veterans past and future because they deserve our thanks knowing we are behind them no matter our personal feelings. And I will support the troops wherever they go.
Because that is what I have learned after looking at a bumper sticker placed on a door forty-five years ago.