TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The grainy images of the the last U.S. troops leaving Vietnam are part of American history but the 50-year mark since the war ended means much more for Tampa Bay veterans who served.
Army veteran Jim Stacy, 73, was drafted at the age of 20 and served in the 101st Airborne infantry division. Half a century later, looking back brings tears to his eyes.
“I think about the troops that didn’t come home,” Stacy said. “Brothers of mine.”
There was a long pause as he tried to gather his composure.
“I think about them every day,” Stacy said. “We fought to stay alive. We didn’t go over there looking for trouble.”
Trouble found Tim Pennell, a 76-year-old who was drafted at 22 to fight with the Army’s 1st Cavalry.
“Three Vietcong walked up. I was laying on my gut staying as low as I could,” Pennell recalled. “I fired a grenade first and then opened fire.”
The enemy fired back, hitting Pennell in the hip.
“And it’s like getting hit by a ’56 Buick,” Pennell said. “It was that impactful.”
Pennell and Stacy have lived with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since the war, but PTSD was not recognized as an issue until about a decade after they came home.
The two Bay area residents’ shared war stories in Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park, including their take on the danger they faced during their tours.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Pennell said. “Too stupid, I guess.”
Stacy felt the same way.
“I didn’t have any fear over there, believe it or not,” Stacy said.
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On Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park, the annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans and War Dogs ceremony will attract hundreds of Bay Area residents grateful for the service of Vietnam veterans.
But 50 years ago and before that, homecomings were harsh at times.
“We didn’t get the welcome that we should’ve got,” Stacy said. “That took 45 years.”
For some, it was jeers instead of cheers from war protestors who sometimes even spit on the young troops.
“It didn’t happen to me, but I knew about it,” Stacy said. “That hurt. That hurt a lot.”
“We’ve got to learn from our mistakes. People were angry at the soldiers,” Pennell said “They should’ve been angry at the country. The country that sent them to a war and then didn’t fight the war the way they should have.”
Pennell was young with decades of life ahead of him, but said he and others realized they were fighting an unwinnable war.
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“It was frustrating,” Pennell said. “[Every soldier] knew it should be fought differently.”
The Hillsborough County commemoration is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Saturday. A wreath laying ceremony at Memorial Park in Lakeland will be held at noon on Saturday.
The last U.S troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973.
Stacy said the annual events recalling that day are important to the survivors and the friends and families of the troops who were killed, including nearly 1,300 from Florida.
“You have to remember it because there’s so many of us,” Stacy said. “And there’s [58,220] who didn’t get home.”