PEORIA — When Butch Conard came home from Vietnam in June of 1972, he was advised to wear civilian clothes when walking through airports.
It was a protective measure — returning soldiers were being attacked. Conard recalled what he saw when his plane landed in San Francisco.
“The protests were horrific. They were yelling ‘baby killers’ and spitting on us,” he said while sitting in the Humana community location in the Westlake Shopping Center Monday morning. “Time passes, but you still can’t forget being treated like that.”
The situation was no better when Conard got home to central Illinois. When he went for his first haircut, the barber, who knew Conard was a newly-returned soldier, ignored his request to leave it long. Conard was growing his hair to fit in with the civilian population.
“He almost shaved me,” said Conard. “I was just shocked. You just don’t believe anyone would treat you like that. He thought it was funny.”
On Monday morning Conard and about 16 other Vietnam veterans were honored during the Vietnam Veterans Commemoration Ceremony at the Humana community center. Though some of the vets in attendance had been honored at other ceremonies in recent years, it was Conard’s first time to be lauded for his service.
“It’s been difficult for me to go because it’s so emotional,” he said. “My wife encouraged me to come today.”
Soldiers who were on active duty from Nov 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975 were invited to attend the ceremony.
“Many people are aware that Vietnam veterans didn’t always receive the greatest welcome home or thank you for their service,” said Aaron McCoy, regional veteran executive with Humana. “The Vietnam War Commemoration was authorized by Congress and established by the Department of Defense and was really meant to honor and thank Vietnam veterans and their families for their service, and really welcome them home because they really didn’t get that warm welcome home at the time of their service.”
The Vietnam War Commemoration was established on the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and Humana became an authorized partner in 2018 with the desire to bring these services to veterans all over the country, said McCoy, who is an Army veteran.
“Humana has a long-standing commitment to American’s military,” he said. “We actually are the administrator for TRICARE East, a healthcare program that covers 6 million U.S servicemen and women and their dependents.”
The 30-minute ceremony began with a presentation of the flags by the Richwoods High School Marine Corps JROTC Color Guard. Hats, many of them proudly identifying the wearer as a Vietnam veteran, were placed them over hearts during the singing of the National Anthem. A Missing Man Table and Honors Ceremony was conducted for soldiers missing in action. At the end of the ceremony 16 veterans lined up to receive their pins and to be personally congratulated by members of the American Legion.
Jim Gorby, of Washington, an Army veteran who served from 1965 to 1966, received a hearty handshake from American Legion Senior Vice Commander Jerry Randall during the ceremony. After returning to his chair, he held hands with is wife Margie during the prayer closing the ceremony. Margie had many relatives who served in the Vietnam war. She was 13 years old when the first one shipped out. Her voice caught as she related those memories to Butch Conard and his wife, Colette, during the reception following the ceremony. The two couples spoke for a long time.
“We just met, but it’s like we’ve known each other forever because we had the same experiences,” said Jim Gorby.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.