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About a decade after the Vietnam War ended, cities across the country began hosting “Welcome Home” parades for Vietnam veterans.  Some say these parades, including one in Chicago, are what finally made them feel like their service was appreciated.  Sarah Jindra has their story.

While fighting in the trenches of Vietnam, many young Americans saw things they didn’t want to see and did things they didn’t want to do.

The song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” by The Animals became their anthem.  And they lived for the moment they got to get back on the plane and leave Vietnam.

“Oh my God, we survived. And when the plane took off, we all cheered. It was a big, big thing,” recalls Vietnam veteran, John Podlaski.

Podlaski is one of the lucky soldiers who made it out.  He was finally able to take a deep breath and return to the country he served.

But he returned to protests and flag burning, aimed not just at the government for its involvement in the war, but at him too.

“It was a heck of an experience or account,” says Podlaski, “to see the tomatoes coming at you, raising their fists and they’re hollering at you.  Everybody was kind of embarrassed. I don’t want to go out and show myself.  To become a Vietnam vet, from that point on, it was kind of a secret. You kind of just took it in the closet and left it. You didn’t want anyone to know.”

Radio personality, Bob Leonard felt the same way when he came back from Vietnam.

“When I came home, people started spitting at me and calling me a baby killer,” says Leonard. “By about the 4th or 5th person who said baby killer and spit at me, I had had enough.”

Leonard grew out his hair and moved to Puerto Rico.  For the next 16 years, he denied serving in Vietnam, even after moving back to the U.S.  But that all changed in Chicago on June 13, 1986.

On that day, Leonard agreed to help host a “Welcome Home” parade for Vietnam veterans. Parade organizers in Chicago found out he was a Vietnam veteran and asked him to help host. He agreed and says that day changed his life.

“Everything changed,” says Leonard.  “My whole mindset changed. From that point on, it was OK to be a veteran.”

While some veterans felt the parade was too little too late, 125,000 thought it was just what they needed to finally be thanked and to feel welcome home.

As Leonard hosted, Podaski marched in the parade.  He later wrote a book about his experience in Vietnam to help others understand what they went through.  Watching the parade broadcast today is still emotional.

“A lot of people didn’t go,” says Podlaski.  “It was 15 years too late. ‘Don’t welcome me home today, because I don’t wanna hear it.’  But for me, I was thrilled to death.”

During the parade broadcast, President Reagan made a statement to those watching, acknowledging the long overdue welcome home. “Clearly the welcome home received by many of our brave men and women who served in Vietnam was less than they deserved.  And that’s putting it mildly. Today, however, Americans are making up for that.”

The scars of war, emotional and physical, were on display that day.  As was the stark reminder, that some Veterans never even got to choose whether to attend a parade.

For more Information on “Cherries,” by John Podlaski:

You can watch all of our untold stories saluting vietnam veterans by clicking this link

And this is a link to our commercial free hour long documentary that aired on most Tribune stations beginning last weekend.