FORTVILLE — Students shouted and cheered, waving handmade signs as nearly 30 veterans paraded down the hallway.
“God bless America,” some posters read. “Thank you for your service” and “Welcome home, vets!” proclaimed others.
Finally, the homecoming they should have received more than 40 years ago.
Mt. Vernon High School held a welcome home event Friday afternoon, opening the school doors to Vietnam and Korean war vets. Students and staff lined the school’s hallways to thank the officers for their sacrifices, for defending America’s way of life during a war many at home opposed.
Story continues below gallery
The event was planned by U.S. history teacher Jennifer Roland, who each year teaches her students about the two conflicts. They talk about the wars — why America was involved and the tension that involvement caused back at home.
Year after year, those students struggle to understand the cold reception many vets received when returning from an unpopular war. Now, soldiers are warmly welcomed, hailed as heroes by their neighbors. Back then, thank-yous were few. Many veterans were attacked verbally or physically by fellow Americans who opposed the war.
About 8.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, another 5.7 million in Korea. More than 100,000 of them gave their lives to the war, according the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
They deserve a warm welcome home, the organizers of Friday’s event said, the support today’s service members feel when returning from war.
Roland has been planning the event since last year. The idea came to her after seeing a news story about a community that held a welcome home party for Vietnam veterans.
She got to work, contacting coworkers and friends to find veterans who might want to participate. She sent about 150 letters to area veterans, inviting them to the school. In recent months, current students jumped in, lending a hand to help make Friday’s event possible.
High school junior PJ Sterrett was a key player in planning. His grandfather, who lives in Chicago, is a Vietnam veteran. His dad is a United States marine.
As he plans his own future, he has a career of service to country in mind. He knows what those men and women who came before him have given up, and he intends to follow their path.
Getting to thank veterans Friday afternoon was an opportunity he won’t soon forget, he said.
He knows it meant a lot to those who were the recipients of that gratitude, however belated, he said.
The school conducted a short ceremony, during which Rolland and Superintendent Shane Robbins, a member of the United States Army and the Indiana National Guard, took time to pay homage to those whose faces and experiences helped bring home a valuable lesson — one they can’t pull from the pages of a history book.
Rolland said despite the disagreement back home surrounding America’s involvement in the war, the military men and women deployed overseas selflessly pressed on, defending their country and fighting for its people, even the ones who didn’t appreciate their efforts.
“You are true American patriots,” she said. “Thank you for stepping up. …Thank you for answering your call.”
As they listened, some veterans wiped tears from their eyes; others smiled. Then there were the ones who sat stoically, taking the moment in, emotions quietly held back.
Robbins thanked the veterans, saying his generation of servicemen and women benefited from the previous generation.
Robbins heard the stories, veterans taking their uniforms off before arriving home, afraid of what would happen when they were seen, servicemen being spit on.
America learned a valuable lesson following the Vietnam and Korean wars, and since then, the country has lauded its veterans, he said.
Robbins has returned from deployment to parades, to ribbons tied to trees in soldiers’ honor, to heartfelt thank-yous. Gratitude the men sitting in front of him are worthy of, too, but went without, he said.
Once the ceremony was over, veterans broke into small groups, telling students about their experiences and the jobs they held during the war.
Ron Stamps, who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, came prepared. He brought a map of Vietnam, a copy of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty and some facts about the war.
Stamps said the students need to know about the wars, the who, what, where, when, how and why of the conflicts that helped ensure American freedoms.
Meeting with veterans served as a good lesson for them, he said, an understanding of what the past can teach us.
“We are the reason veterans today are celebrated,” Stamps said. “We changed that.”