Charles M. Pritchard celebrated his 20th birthday in 1966 on a ship that was taking him across the Pacific Ocean to Vietnam.
He landed in the southern port of Vung Tau and spent a year fighting the North Vietnamese up the Mekong Delta to Chu Lai as an Army combat engineer.
“We built things and blew up things,” said Pritchard, 68, of the Town of Tonawanda.
But he was shocked by the reception he got when he returned home from that controversial war in September 1967.
After a debriefing in Oakland, Calif., he and others were told not to walk through the San Francisco airport alone for fear that they would be accosted by anti-war protesters.
“It still hurts to this day – still hurts,” said Pritchard, his voice breaking.
At an American Legion post while picking up a fish fry, he asked the bartender how he could join the veterans organization. Pritchard was told he had to go to war: “I said, ‘I went to Vietnam.’ He said, ‘That wasn’t a war.’ ”
Decades later, attitudes were far different. On Thursday night at the Town of Tonawanda Veterans Memorial at Kenney Field, 271 Vietnam War-era veterans from the town were honored.
A crowd of about 700 people listened as each veteran’s name was read aloud and those attending were asked to stand to be recognized for their service during the years that so deeply divided the country.
Each was presented a certificate “in appreciation for your dedication and sacrifice for our country during the Vietnam War. On behalf of the Town of Tonawanda Town Board, we thank you for serving.”
Pritchard, a retired Army reservist, said he was appreciative of the recognition and acknowledged that perceptions of military service during those years had changed in the 40 years since the war ended with the fall of Saigon.
“We come from a whole family of veterans so this is a great thing,” said Pritchard’s wife, Bonnie.
For the last three years, in the days leading up to the Fourth of July, the town has been recognizing resident veterans of each of the country’s major conflicts, beginning in 2013 with World War II and in 2014, the Korean War.
But Thursday’s event was different, because there are many more Vietnam War veterans and also because of lingering memories of the sometimes hostile receptions they received when returning home.
Joseph C. Brodzinski, 70, had much the same experience as Pritchard. After he was drafted in 1965, he mostly served stateside as an instructor on the MGR-1 Honest John rocket system.
“It wasn’t a good deal,” he said Thursday. “When we were discharged, we were treated like city garbage. We were told not to wear our uniforms. It was a rough deal. But through the years, people are coming around. They’re starting to respect the military.”
Like Pritchard, he wore a service cap identifying himself as a Vietnam War veteran.
South Buffalo native Stephen T. Banko III, 68, a highly decorated soldier from the Vietnam War, offered some insight during his keynote address into the unshakable bonds between soldiers and their motivation for following orders.
“We did it why soldiers always do it – we did it for each other,” he told the crowd. “We did it because the guys on the right and the left depended on us and deserved the best we could offer. That kind of service makes us part of a special cadre of war-wounded souls that stretches across both time and space.”
Many of the veterans Thursday were joined by their families, including Walter J. Monahan, 69, of Kenmore, who brought his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren to Thursday’s ceremony.
During Monahan’s four years in the Navy, his destroyer, the USS Southerland, was tasked with guarding aircraft carriers, shore bombing and inspecting sailing ships for contraband.
He called bombing the Saigon River shore “probably one of the most harrowing things we did.”
“We had to traverse the river at 27 knots at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “We had to get up to where some soldiers were getting overrun to support them with gunfire.”
Unlike Pritchard or Brodzinski, however, he wasn’t subjected to the same hostility.
“I never experienced what a lot of the guys did coming back through San Francisco and that area,” he said.
Monahan’s wife, Valerie, credited the Vietnam War veterans with ensuring that soldiers returning home today from Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t treated in the same manner.
“They really have influenced the way our troops are treated now,” she said. “And I think it’s really, really admirable.”
Monahan’s daughter, Kelly Frothingham, said she was familiar with her dad’s war stories, including the Saigon River bombings.
“It’s really important to be here,” she said. “It’s important for the town to be honoring all of the veterans. It’s really cool to be here with my dad and see him honored in this way.”