WHITEFIELD - Saturday's event at the Whitefield Regional High School was all about Vietnam veterans and giving them the welcome home they deserved but didn't get so many years ago. The welcome was late, everyone acknowledged, but it was heartfelt, and a gym full of thankful residents came to tell them so.
"Thank you for coming,'' said Peter St. James, master of ceremonies. "We know this means a lot to you. Let me be the first to say, 'Welcome home' to our Vietnam veterans."
"We acknowledge and commemorate the military service of our men and women in Vietnam," Chaplain Col. Thomas Behling of the New Hampshire National Guard said in his invocation. "Many still fight personal battles. We ask you to intervene for each and every one."
St. James asked how many had seen that commercial during football season that showed a soldier coming home and the commentator saying, "We gave him a homecoming he'll never forget."
"For some of you, that had to have been bittersweet," he said. "But times are changing. Every soldier deserves a heroes welcome, and by God this is yours."
This was the second "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans" event held since Senate Bill 398 was signed into law on June 13, 2012. The first one was held March 30, 2013, in Concord, but it was recognized that not everyone could get there.
"That's why we're here today,'' said Maj. Gen. William Reddel, New Hampshire adjutant general. "We believe it's our job to bring this to you."
A video was shown during the event of a younger soldier getting the recognition he deserves while a Vietnam soldier sits unnoticed, at first, at a lunch counter. A young boy, after getting his picture taken with the younger soldier, asks the older man whether he's a hero, too.
"I served the best I could," the older one says.
Reddel said that's what the Vietnam War became, a stigmatized war.
"Fortunately, the nation as a whole has gotten to a better place," he said.
He said the military believes it should never leave a fallen soldier behind, but "fallen'' doesn't necessarily mean "physically injured.''
Thirty-five percent of today's veterans served in Vietnam.
"To all Vietnam veterans who are receiving this long overdue welcome: Thank you," Gov. Maggie Hassan said.
Looking over the crowd, she said, "We are an all-hands-on-deck state, and you proved it again today.
"Decades ago, when you were asked to serve, you did. When you were asked to leave everyone you loved, you did. When you were asked to leave your job, you did, and when you were asked to risk your life, you did," Hassan said. "And when you came home, the people you protected weren't grateful.
"It's my humble honor today that we not only say welcome home, but thank God you are home. Thank God we can call you ours. We are all safer because of you," she said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen noted everyone has a tendency to look at the past with nostalgia.
"I remember how poorly we treated you," she said. "Soldiers don't choose what wars they serve, they just faithfully and honorably do their duty.
"Today, we want to make sure you know we recognize your service and are grateful," she said.
"It was shameful that we did not recognize your service then," Sen. Kelly Ayotte said. "So many of you have gone out and made a difference for veterans who have come after you, for the next generation. It's because of this that we now recognize our veterans the way we should. You've shown us what it means to serve, what patriotism and honor is."