As the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam grew from 1965 to 1975, not only were soldiers at war abroad, a kind of civil war between hawks and doves broke out here at home between anti-war protesters and those who supported the effort.
The controversy impacted the troops when they came home, but veterans like Bob Hamilton of Henry County were not greeted with open arms and thanked for their service. Instead, members of the military felt ostracized, vilified and shunned.
But, with the war many yeaMassachusetts, Hamilton said he has found a home the Bluegrass State. More than that, though, he has found a family among others who served through the veterans’ group that he has become deeply involved in.
Hamilton flew a helicopter in Vietnam, through both combat and non-combat missions. His time in the war took him all over South Vietnam and into Cambodia.
When he got home, Hamilton found that there was no one around him who could relate.
“I wouldn’t wear this,” he said, pointing to his shirt, emblazoned with a patch that labeled him as a Vietnam veteran. “No way.”
The transition from Vietnam back to American soil was jarring, according to Hamilton. He went from flying a helicopter in Vietnam to driving his car in his hometown in less than 48 hours.
“I wasn’t around anybody who’d served. So nobody understood what I’d been through.”
As he explained, the image that people have of Vietnam is inaccurate. “It’s not that you’re getting shot at everyday,” he said. “A lot of times, you’d go to [a landing zone] and you’d be on edge, thinking something’s going to happen, and it wouldn’t. But that didn’t lessen the impact on your nerves.”
In the war, Hamilton said, you didn’t have friends. “You had buddies.”
One young man that he attended flight school with and spent much of his time with for the better part of a year while training was killed only 20 days into their deployment. So, he said, the soldiers were careful who they became attached to.
“It wasn’t every day, every mission, every hour,” he explained. “But we certainly could’ve had our name on ‘the Wall’ [the Vietnam Veterans Memorial] in Washington at certain points of reckoning along the way.”
It wasn’t until Hamilton found the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association that he found people who understood. Another Vietnam veteran pushed him to join, he said, and after awhile, he finally conceded. He was surprised to find that the other veterans were not like the Hollywood portrayal of Vietnam veterans.
“They were like me,” he said. “They’re happy, they’re healthy, they’re successful, they’re proud that they served and they’d do it again if they were all a little younger.”
Even after agreeing to attend a meeting of the VHPA in Louisville in 1990, Hamilton said he was extremely reluctant to go. After attending the first meeting, though, he said his mind was changed. The fact that the other veterans were well-adjusted and leading normal lives took a huge burden off his shoulders and allowed him to move past the war.
Now, Hamilton serves as the president of the local VHPA chapter, which includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio. And in his current office, he has been able to bring the group’s activities to Henry County.
On July 3, amidst the group’s 31st reunion held in Louisville, the VHPA held a motorcycle ride to the Vietnam Memorial in Frankfort, with a stop in Henry County for lunch and fuel.
During the stop at Harry Hill Park, the veterans were surprised with a visit from a Kentucky State Police helicopter, which was the same model they flew in Vietnam.
“It was one heck of a surprise,” Hamilton said, smiling.
At its heart, the VHPA is about reaching out to veterans who have never talked about their experiences, Hamilton said. He recounted numerous stories about veterans and their families who had been helped by the organization.
One story was about a man being reunited with a soldier he had saved in Vietnam. Another was the tale of two young girls whose father had died in the war, and meeting a man who served alongside him. Yet another was about the VHPA holding a memorial service for two families who had lost young men to the war.
Though, as Hamilton said, not everyone wants to be helped. One man he reached out to told him that he had put the war behind him and he didn’t want to speak about it again. As Hamilton put it, the problem was that he had never talked about it to begin with.
The war affected everyone who served. And the reception the soldiers received when the came back didn’t help, but Hamilton said organizations like the VHPA help them move past the war.
To learn more about the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, visit vhpa.org.rs behind him, Hamilton has found a way to be proud of his service.