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50 years after leaving Fort Carson for Vietnam, veterans finally get a welcome home

May 4, 2017 Updated: May 5, 2017 at 10:04 am
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More than 100 Vietnam veterans from 189th Assault Helicopter Company celebrated the 50th anniversary of their deployment to Vietnam with a visit to Ft. Carson Thursday, May 4, 2017. The visit was hosted by Fort Carson's 4th Combat Aviation Brigade whose soldiers gave the veterans tours of three helicopters on display. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

They went to war from Fort Carson half a century ago.

On Thursday more than 100 veterans of 189th Helicopter Company were finally welcomed home from Vietnam.

"When you got home, you tried to forget," said veteran Mark Latham. "Fifty years later, you try to remember."

The 189th trained at Fort Carson throughout 1966 and went overseas in 1967 where they flew their UH-1 Hueys through the treacherous jungles of Vietnam's Central Highlands.

"I actually stood guard duty in that hangar 50 years ago," said Fred Schmidt as he stood at the post's Butts Army Airfield.

Schmidt and his comrades were greeted Thursday by their modern counterparts, the post's 4th Combat Aviation Brigade. The unit's soldiers let the old-timers crawl all over their new high-tech helicopters and listened to tales of a war that ended before most of them were born.

"It makes you feel good just to be around them," Vietnam veteran Bud Murray said of the kids in the crisp camouflage uniforms.

More than 100 Vietnam veterans from 189th Assault Helicopter Company celebrated the 50th anniversary of their deployment to Vietnam with a visit to Ft. Carson Thursday, May 4, 2017. The visit was hosted by Fort Carson's 4th Combat Aviation Brigade. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Murray and the rest of the 189th worked out of a base at Pleiku, which was a frequent target for Vietcong mortars and rockets. The choppers often came home riddled with bullet holes, Murray said.

The 189th fought through the infamous Tet offensive.

"I lost several friends," remembered George Meeker, who was a crew chief in the 189th. "But I was glad I was flying over the jungle rather than marching through it."

Vietnam was the first war where the Army fully incorporated the helicopter. Transport choppers hauled troops to battle while heavy-left helicopters delivered their artillery and gunships cleared the path.

Col. Lori Robinson, who commands the Fort Carson brigade, said it was important for her soldiers to show the Vietnam veterans hospitality.

"What you did paved the way," she said.

Robinson's unit includes 113 helicopters and offers Fort Carson soldiers the same advantages delivered by Army pilots over Vietnam. The new birds, though, include more powerful engines, better electronics and a host of weapons unimaginable in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

"A lot of the technology we have today is because of you," Command Chief Warrant Officer Jimmie Brooks told the veterans.

Vietnam veterans from 189th Assault Helicopter Company tour the inside of a Chinook helicopter at Ft. Carson Thursday, May 4, 2017. The visit was hosted by Fort Carson's 4th Combat Aviation Brigade. The veterans were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their deployment to Vietnam. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

But as the politics of Vietnam roiled America during the 1960s and early 1970s, the veterans of the 189th came home to a cold reception.

"Nobody cared about us when we came home," Meeker said.

"It wasn't too good," Latham said of his post-Vietnam welcome.

But the decades have caused a change of heart for how America sees its Vietnam veterans. In Colorado Springs, the veterans of 189th have gotten thanks and adulation.

"It was different back them," said veteran Bob McConchie. "Now it's good."

And at the base they left to serve in the jungle, the 189th got the words that weren't delivered in the 1960s.

Soldiers stood in stiff formation behind Robinson as she delivered a phrase that the graying veterans before her have waited most of a lifetime to hear,

"Welcome back."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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