Making the ‘Long March Home’
Three Vietnam Veterans Share Welcome Home with America
CALIF. -- Mike Jackson has never met Gary Chapman and Ray Santana, yet they share an unbreakable bond. It is a bond forged in combat and tempered by a nation’s neglect.
All three men served in Vietnam, each in a different branch of the service. All three were wounded in action and have wrestled with the on-going physical challenges of their injuries. Each returned from combat to build a purpose-driven, meaningful life. And, like so many other Vietnam veterans, each man wishes that politics and cultural upheaval had not marred his long-ago homecoming.
“You got home and there was no real welcome. You were just greeted by protest signs and taunts,'" Chapman said. "It was a bad time. It's not like today…I'm glad to see our troops are getting a proper welcome now.”
In November 2006, the three men -- who represent the Army, Marines and Air Force -- will meet for the first time in the Antelope Valley of California, where they will share a deeply personal moment. It will mark the end of one long journey home and the completion of a shorter one that started on Veterans Day 2005 – though none of them knew it at the time.
It was back in 2002 that Mike Jackson first decided the time had come to stop regretting the past and do something to reframe it, forever. At the time Jackson, then Executive Director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) in Dayton, OH, was working on his Vietnam memoir, Naked In Da Nang (Zenith Press, 2004) and was “retracing both my own history and that of so many guys I served with.”
The retired combat pilot and Air Force officer had long dreamed of fashioning a combat story that captured not simply his experiences and perspectives, but those of anyone who has ever left home to fight a war.
As Jackson and his co-author, Tara Dixon-Engel, worked to craft a humorous and life-affirming story, “we realized that it had no ending,” he recalled. “The epilogue was titled “we never got our parade,” and it really bothered me to end it like that. We wanted to write a book that could change America’s perspective of Vietnam veterans. But I realized that we Vietnam veterans also had to change how we felt about ourselves, largely due to the homecoming we didn’t receive and the way we’ve been portrayed in the media ever since.”
And that’s when Dixon-Engel posed the question that launched a thousand press releases.
“Tara asked me if it was too late to make that parade happen. At first I said it was – that America wasn’t ready for it…even now, so many years later. But the more we talked about it, the more I thought it could and should happen, and the more I wanted it to happen. This was something that could reframe America’s perception of us and, much more important, our perception of ourselves,” Jackson said.
The duo began contacting friends, business associates, “and more than a few total strangers” to try and gain support for a day of nationwide welcome home parades across America. When the city of Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base offered to co-host a four-day Operation Welcome Home over Veterans Day weekend 2005, Jackson and Dixon-Engel left their jobs at the NAHF to serve as National Chairmen, promoting the celebration to anyone who would listen.
The event exceeded the authors’ expectations, despite a limited budget for nationwide promotion. Jackson, a 1997 inductee into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame for his efforts on behalf of unemployed veterans, poured much of his own money into press packets, speaking junkets and media events. Combined with publicity generated by Las Vegas, the effort paid off in support from actress Ann-Margret, the Pentagon, and the America Supports You program, as well as advance coverage by Fox News, the Associated Press, Paul Harvey, MSNBC, CNN and many more media outlets. Jackson urged communities across America to hold their own Operation Welcome Home event, or to designate a local “veteran ambassador” to march in the Vegas parade. The Mayors of Palmdale and Lancaster, CA endorsed Gary Chapman and his Marine Corps pal Ray Santana as parade participants. Neither man knew what to expect; both were overwhelmed by the reception that greeted them.
“The experience was phenomenal,” recalls Chapman, who served in Southeast Asia as a door gunner with the Army's 123rd Aviation Battalion, Aeroscout Company. “There were thousands along the parade route who shook our hands and yelled ‘thank you’ and ‘welcome home’ as we passed in review. People were crying, laughing and hugging. Veterans who had been standing cautiously on the sidelines were climbing over the barriers and joining the parade. No one expected anything like this.”
For Santana, who has undergone 15 spinal surgeries due to a combat injury, the celebration was truly a life changing event. The former Marine served as a machine gunner in the 1st Marine's 5th Battalion Bravo Company.
"When I came home from Vietnam and they told me I had risked my life for nothing, it was very disheartening. A lot of survivors wished we hadn't survived because of the way we were treated. A lot of veterans out there still need healing and support," he said. “This celebration gave me back my sense of pride. It made me feel the way I did when I graduated from the Marines Corps.”
Both men returned home to California knowing they needed to share the healing they had experienced in Las Vegas by developing a celebration in their own state. Supported by their wives, Linda Santana, a journalist, and Ingrid Chapman, a public relations executive, the two veterans did exactly what Mike Jackson had been dreaming of…they took the vision and ran with it.
On November 11, 2006 the Antelope Valley will be the location of what could be the biggest Vietnam welcome home yet. The organizers are working with state and local officials to develop a huge parade honoring Vietnam veterans from across the country, in addition to all those who serve America. A web site has been created to promote the event and update the rapidly expanding list of sponsors and participants. It can be seen at, www.AVWelcomeHome.com. It’s a time-consuming job but Chapman is quick to say “if we can help one veteran find peace, all of our efforts will be worth it.”
On the other side of the country, in the quiet mid-western town of Tipp City, Ohio, Mike Jackson is helping to promote the celebration and is looking forward to his Nov. 8 flight to California, where he will finally offer a heartfelt ‘welcome home’ to the two men who are keeping his dream alive.
“They are doing everything right, from spotlighting the veterans and their sacrifice to making certain that any profits from the event will go to support the local veterans home,” the disabled vet reflected. “This is what Tara and I envisioned. This is what I wasn’t sure could ever happen. Las Vegas gave Operation Welcome Home its legs…but Gary and Ray are giving it heart!”
For Jackson, the seminal moment in last year’s Las Vegas event was when a grateful veteran from Oklahoma shoved a note into his hand that read simply “thank you for bringing me home.” Ray Santana echoed that sentiment in the Antelope Valley Press recently when he said “I completed my Marine duties in Vietnam on June 11, 1969, but I didn’t begin the long march home until Nov. 11, 2005.”
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