When U.S. Army soldier Stan Leighton flew back from Vietnam in 1970, he landed in Seattle and then boarded the first available flight home to California. Like so many others who fought in that war, he returned to a nation embroiled in deep social and political turmoil over the war.
“I was fortunate,” said Leighton, who lives at the Veterans Homes of California-Ventura. “I got into L.A., and it was 3 o’clock in the morning. There were no protestors … It was too early in the morning.”
He encountered backlash only from a couple of military policemen who harassed him because his necktie was loose. They told him he was out of uniform. He wasn’t having any of that.
“Where were you guys three days ago?” Leighton replied. “I was in Vietnam while you were here in an airport looking for military guys out of uniform.”
The hurt, he said, came later as he tried to re-acclimate to life back home as a Vietnam veteran; one of three Leighton brothers who served there in the Army’s 101st Airborne.
“When I came home, I was really bitter,” he said. “I never talked to anybody but my immediate family.”
Leighton found it easier to tell people he’d been in Germany, rather than Vietnam, to avoid hearing the “baby-killer” label and other vitriol.
The insults came on other fronts as well. His World War II veteran father demanded that local Veterans of Foreign Wars post accept his sons as members over protests that they didn’t qualify because Vietnam was called a “conflict” and not a war declared by Congress.
“I got rid of everything I had related to the military – the patches, the medals,” Leighton said. “I got tired of people saying, ‘Who’d you kill to get that?’ I got rid of it all.”
Then, something happened that changed America’s view of the Vietnam War forever, and it changed Leighton along with many other Vietnam veterans as well.
The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 1982, had a profound effect upon the nation and its veterans. Each of the 58,282 names now etched into black granite panels represents a person –father, son, daughter, brother, sister, or friend – who died in Vietnam during the war.
Visited by three million people each year, it is impossible for them to look at a name and not wonder who this person was, how he or she lived and died. It is impossible for Vietnam veterans to visit the wall without remembering their comrades and friends, whose names grace it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in essence told them that their war – their service, dedication, and their comrades’ lives – truly mattered. It became transformational, and it definitely transformed Leighton.
“When they dedicated the wall, I realized people did care,” Leighton said. “After that, I got my DD 214 and bought my medals back.”
Leighton began embracing his Vietnam War veteran status. He visited the wall during an Honor Flight trip a few years ago. He visits the Moving Wall whenever it comes to Ventura County. He created his own moving tribute as well.
“I stenciled the 31 names of the Ventura residents (whose names are on the Wall) onto my car,” he said. “On the trunk are some personal friends (not from Ventura) who were killed in Vietnam.”
His 2001 Volvo includes tributes to his two brothers, Eddie and Bill, both of whom preceded him in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam and still live in the Ventura area.
Leighton’s experiences also made him more conscious of the younger generations of veterans as they make their own adjustments.
“Because of the way Vietnam veterans were mistreated when we got home, (society) learned a lot,” he said. “The Afghanistan and Iraq veterans get treated better. I mean, I’ll see a young veteran and I’ll pay for his lunch. I didn’t get that when I got home. But if I see someone who was in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines, I’ll pay for his lunch.”
It’s part of being a proud Vietnam veteran, which he credits to the panels of black granite 3,000 miles away.
“That’s what turned it around for me, and for my brothers, too,” Leighton said.
Indeed, for Leighton and many like him, when the Vietnam Wall went up, the unfair stigma of being a Vietnam veteran began to come down.