Parade shows overdue appreciation for Vietnam vets
Posted November 12, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — The 10-day Heroes Homecoming celebration that has honored Vietnam veterans in Fayetteville culminated Saturday with a parade downtown.
The parade and the homecoming itself, which was bursting with gratitude, was a far cry from what most soldiers received when they returned from Vietnam. The pageantry on Hay Street – rowdy with marching bands and crowds lining the street with signs saying "Thank you" – isn't the image of Fayetteville that Tom Dohnke remembers.
When he deployed from Fort Bragg to Vietnam in 1967, Dohnke recalled a very different atmosphere.
"There were pool halls, hotels, bar fights, and we weren't well accepted in this town in those days," he said.
Dohnke returned to Vietnam in 2009 to appear in "Killing Memories," a documentary produced by his company commander, Pete Pepper.
The trip was cathartic for him and the four other soldiers featured, but they live every day with the guilt of survival and grief for their fallen comrades.
"I've been mourning them all these years, from the time I left over there," Dohnke said. "We lost one after another like flies – 18 in one day, 13 another day, 6 another."
But Saturday's parade brought some redemption to Fayetteville, as onlookers showed appreciation to the marching vets.
Eight-year-old Jalonya Griffin was among them, wearing an oversized hat belonging to one special veteran.
"It's my grandpa's," she said. "I'm really happy that he was a hero."
The heroes showed humility as the town made up for the four decades that went by without giving those who served in Vietnam a proper Heroes Homecoming.
"I was never a hero," Dohnke said. "For a week, you folks in this town have been treating me like a hero. I'm embarrassed over it. I'm not a hero and never was."