Attitudes towards veterans have changed for the better

This Sunday, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook will surely light up with messages thanking military personnel — both past and present — for their service. Restaurants around the country will offer free meals to those who have served, retail stores will offer discounts, cities will host parades and NFL games will almost certainly include tributes to the troops.

It will be well-deserved Veterans Day recognition for the selfless men and women who have defended our country over the years. But to many, this type of love, gratitude and pride — at least at these current levels — is something of a relatively recent phenomenon. While gratitude for our troops has been building for decades, the level of pride seems to be at an all-time high today.

Watertown resident and Vietnam veteran Steve Duske agrees. To him, pride in our nation’s military has never been greater.

“I can’t put my finger on what caused the change, but I’ll tell you, it sure has changed,” Duske said of recent attitudes toward soldiers and veterans. “If I wear a hat, people thank me. If they find out I was in Vietnam, they come up to me and thank me for my service. That means so much to me.”

However, Duske, like other Vietnam veterans, doesn’t have to think long or hard to recall a time when veterans didn’t receive that same kind of gratitude. Not only were returning Vietnam vets not greeted with the respect and thanks they deserved, most were greeted with anger and hostility.

“Some people made us feel like the crumbled cookie on the bottom of the bag, like we were a bunch of murders or killers, that we chose to go over there and that we were a bunch of warmongers” Watertown resident and Vietnam Navy veteran Mike Nash said. “For awhile, I didn’t want to have anything to do with letting anybody know I was a Vietnam vet.”

Duske says he felt the same way. For decades, he tried to hide the fact that he was a Vietnam vet, only starting to wear his Cavalry hat about 4 years ago. Duske, who served two terms in the Army in Vietnam, said it was especially difficult watching the 1991 ticker tape parade in New York for returning Gulf War veterans. For him, that moment brought painful memories of his own return to the U.S. back to the surface.

“When they had the ticker tape parade in New York, I sat on the corner of my bed and cried,” Duske said. “I looked at the heroes who came back from that short war, and they were given a parade. I snuck home. There was nobody at the airport. I took a taxi home.”

The Gulf War, and the response the soldiers got, likely played a significant role in the start of the changing attitudes toward soliders and veterans, though Duske said he’s noticed the biggest change in the past 3 or 4 years. Others, however, like Watertown resident and Vietnam vet Rick DeNomme, said the change really began to occur about 20 years ago. No matter when attitudes toward veterans really began to change, all can agree that it’s clear that those perceptions are far different today than they were 40 years ago.

“I think it’s super compared to what it used to be,” DeNomme said of the general public’s perception of veterans and active duty personnel. “It’s been outstanding. I wear my stuff a lot showing I’m a veteran, and there are always people coming up and thanking me, which is a very good feeling.”

It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what has caused this change in attitudes over the years, or this most recent surge in patriotism in particular. The popularization of social media may be at least partially responsible in making young people more aware of the sacrifices veterans have made for their country, while simultaneously giving them an outlet to publicly express their gratitude. Others say the mainstream media has also played a role.

“It’s been made more visible to the general public, the sacrifices that military people make,” said Nash, who lost four toes and part of his foot during an accident on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. “Whether they’re reserves or regular military, there are a lot of sacrifices made for the public, and more people talk about them more now. There’s better communication from news media about the military, and there’s more honesty about it.”

None of the Vietnam veterans contacted for this story say they harbor any resentment for the way they were treated upon their return to the United States. Nash said he carried some resentment at first, but that it softened over the years because he now feels the American public has realized and accepted that “Vietnam vets got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” While he once tried to hide his Vietnam service from others, he now takes pride in his service, and even has tags on his license plates.

“Over the years I realized that I was wrong in trying got hide it,” Nash said. “There’s not a stigma anymore associated with being a Vietnam vet. I’m proud of what I did.”

DeNomme said he believes the way he and other Vietnam vets were treated in the 1970s is actually one of the biggest reasons for the heightened level of awareness and gratitude today. He said the suffering veterans like himself were forced to endure in some ways might serve as a lesson and a reminder for the way veterans should be treated today.

“I’m very proud that we were a part of getting that changed,” DeNomme said.

Duske echoed DeNomme’s sentiments, saying he  takes every chance he gets to say thank you.

“If f I see somebody coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, I walk right up to them and give them a hug and say ‘thanks for your service,’” Duske said. “We never had that. You don’t know what that means to an individual. For these last 4 years, I’m proud to be a Vietnam vet. People come up to me and thank me, and I never got that before. “It took all this time, 40 years, but  hopefully it’s the Vietnam era that made that happen.”