CONCORD — James Gooch remembers some of his fellow soldiers stopping on their way home from serving in Vietnam to buy new civilian clothes and throwing away or even burning their uniforms.
They didnt want strangers to know where they had been.
Saturday, thousands of them proudly displayed their former military affiliations on ball caps, T-shirts or leather vests as they walked around inside the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex for the Vietnam Veterans Homecoming Celebration. Now, strangers came up to thank them.
It feels good, said Gooch, 62, of Henderson, who cooked and drove a truck for the Armys 275th Signal Company while in Vietnam.
Its a different time. When the U.S. pulled out of the conflict in 1973, much of the public had turned against involvement in Vietnam and was in no mood to honor the troops who had served there. Today, people seem more able to separate the politics of a war from the people who are sent to fight it.
Maybe thats why, 40 years later, some 62,500 people, including vets, their families, members of dozens of advocacy groups and others who just wanted a chance to say thanks, came out for the homecoming event, the first of its kind in North Carolina and maybe the biggest ever for those who served during the Vietnam era.
In 2010, North Carolina had more than 250,000 veterans who had served during the Vietnam War era, according to the Veterans Administration.
Gooch said the first time anyone ever acknowledged his service was just a few months ago, when his young grandson came home from school and said, Thanks for serving, Pa.
By Saturday afternoon, he had lost count of how many times people had reached out during the homecoming to pat his arm or shake his hand. Some were fellow veterans who had been where he had been and seen what he had seen.
The free event was sponsored by the USO of North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Broadcasters and the Speedway. Part music festival, part motorcycle rally, part military trade show, it included concerts by the 82nd Airborne Division Chorus, George Clinton and Charlie Daniels. The U.S. Air Force conducted a flyover and the Armys Golden Knight parachute team dropped in.
Appreciate the attention
Organizations that serve veterans had set up tables inside a garage area, where they handed out pamphlets about post-traumatic stress syndrome and illnesses associated with Agent Orange exposure. They gave away key chains and drink-can insulators.
While most of the crowd appeared to come from North Carolina, it included people from South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia as well.
Horace Kerry, 71, of Durham, made the trip. Youd be surprised the feeling it gives you, he said, to be in the company of so many others who had served in the war and to be approached by people who want to say they appreciate the sacrifice he and others made. Kerry, who was in the Marine Corps, served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1964.
Brick Nicholson of Clayton was there in 1968, as a helicopter pilot. Hes now part of the N.C. Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, which has amassed a collection of a half-dozen vintage aircraft it displays for special events.
Saturday, the jungle-green helicopters were a popular attraction parked on the speedway infield. Children climbed into the seats and imagined what it would be like to fly, and some former crew members, pilots and door gunners got in and remembered how it was.
I think they appreciate the attention, Nicholson said of the veterans who posed for pictures with the aircraft.
Along with the helicopters, the group displays maps of Southeast Asia, and veterans linger over these, pointing out to friends and family the village and province names they know.
Once, they didnt want anyone to know where they had been. Now, Nicholson said, They can point to a place and say, I was there.