When Knightdale resident Samuel Conner returned from Vietnam in 1971, he was expecting a steak dinner from the U.S. Government, a plane ticket back home to Long Island, N.Y. and waving American flags.
He got the first two.
But when he made it back to New York, he was accosted on the subway while in uniform. Citizens were angry, not thankful for his service as a communications specialist in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War.
And as a black veteran, he wasn’t revered among family and friends either.
“When I got back to the black community there were asking ‘Why were you fighting for the man, he doesn’t care about you,’ and all that,” Conner said. “I got it from both ends.”
He threw away his uniform, medals and any reminder that he ever served in the military. For years, he couldn’t watch TV because seeing service men and women welcomed home reminded him of the negativity he encountered when he came home at 22 years old.
Eventually, with the help of several veteran organizations and events, Conner was able to proudly remember his time in uniform and as a retiree living in Knightdale, he’s published his story of healing and has four other books in the works.
The National Center for Veterans estimates there are 775,000 veterans in North Carolina. The organization’s statistics estimate 303,505 of them served in the Vietnam War or Korean conflict.
A series of traumatizing events – including finding his bunkmate dead during advanced training in Texas – left Conner feeling angry, like the people who chased him around the New York subway. He didn’t want to remember his time in the service either.
The veteran treatment
In 2010, Conner visited Washington D.C. and saw the ending of the Rolling Thunder cross-country ride. The group remembers prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. While the group has many veterans as members, it is not a veterans-only organization.
The group rides every Memorial Day from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. to Washington D.C. It takes 10 days and there are several stops along the way.
Conner, who has a bike decked out in Vietnam War remembrance stickers and patches, decided he wanted to participate. In 2011 after retiring, he rode his bike out to Rancho Cucamonga and began the 10-day ride with thousands of other motorcyclists, escorted by local police in many parts of the country.
Across the country, local veterans, churches and community groups fed the bikers. People hugged and thanked them for their service.
“For the first time since my mother passed in 2005 … I had homemade peach cobbler and all of this was free from strangers,” Conner said. “It was quite a comparison from the way I was treated when I came back.”
Since that year, Conner has made the trip every Memorial Day.
Veterans bonded with each other over stories and connections, like the woman from Louisiana making the ride to scatter her son’s ashes in Washington D.C. who found the soldier who called the medevac in when her son was killed in Iraq.
The trip wasn’t just for veterans to heal the wounds of war. At some stops in smaller, impoverished towns, the group took on small projects. The group used the entire 10-day trip to raise money for repairs to a school building in a small coal mining town in West Virginia.
The reaction was one Conner never experienced until then.
“You would think we were heroes,” he said.