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Veterans' Day
Welcome Home - 1967

Millikan High School

Long Beach, California

by: Don Poss
(Copyright ©, 1998 )

My Welcome Home story, which follows, was prompted by the below email:
 

Subject: Just saying hello
From: Matteson

Hi Don, my name is Matteson and I study acting at a very unique school called Playhouse West, located in Los Angeles. I wanted to tell you about a wonderful project that I've been involved with for the last year. Playhouse West is the home of a play called "Welcome Home, Soldier." It is 3 and a half hours of true stories about how the Vets were treated when they came home from 'Nam and about the struggles they still endure. To say that being involved in this play has changed my life is an understatement. You see, I was only an infant when the war was being fought, so I (and most other people I know who are my age) feel that you guys were fighting for the freedoms I now enjoy so that I could grow up safe and free. And I am so very grateful for all you guys did for us. And I am so very sorry for how horribly you were treated.
      "Welcome Home Soldier" gives us a chance to say "Thank You!!!" to Vets who have never been acknowledged for the sacrifices they made and the wonderful job they did. If you are in Los Angeles, I hope you will come and check us out. The play runs the first Saturday of every month and people come from all over the country to see it (we have Vets who have been coming all seven years that the play has been running). All shows are free, with donations going to Task Force Omega, to benefit the Vets.
      I was really glad to see your website. Thank you for putting it together for people to see.
With warm regards, Matteson

Hello, Matteson. My first class at Long Beach City College was "Acting is Believing." I needed one more class to qualify for the GI Bill's education benefits at that time. My wise professor kindly suggested that I "not quit my day job." He was so right about that! One of my brothers, Ray, was the real pilot for the movie and TV series M*A*S*H, which ran for so many years.
      One comment I would have in question about presentation of how Vietvets were treated upon return: Due to time constraints, I'm sure you must present a "generic" version which probably represents the worst "welcome home" incidents. In reality, the early year or two (1965-1966), the Welcome Home (at least for me) was not hostile. Indifference was common and included "where have you been--what war--where's that?" Others were anxious about "what's it really like over there?" because their friends and relatives were likely to be sent "there" or were already "there." I want to tell you about my Welcome Home.

Millikan High School, Long Beach, California - 1967

My high school called me on the phone and asked if I would address the school's Veterans' Day Assemblies (2,500 students), in uniform (I was already discharged from a four years USAF enlistment). I agreed. A few days later I had parked my car in familiar old-stomping-grounds in one of the high school parking lots. I couldn't believe I had agreed to such an idiotic request, and was grumbling to myself while walking toward the auditorium. I didn't have clue-one what I would say, and this was merely the first-assembly with a second-assembly to go! So basically I planned to respond to the Principal's (WW11 vet) questions, and somehow get through it.
      We stood at the podium as the Principal quieted the assembly who pointed and stared at him and the guy in a blue Air Force uniform. I listened as he introduced me as a graduate of Millikan High School. Memories of Vietnam were extremely vivid at that time, and, standing at center-stage I looked out at the too-young faces setting in the large auditorium, all quiet and attentive.
      The Principal began asking short questions, which I gave clipped answers to. The audience, it seemed to me, was embarrassed that I was not at ease and with my too-quiet and too-brief replies. And they were right, my attention was drifting to recent memories. I then ignored a question, and turned from the Principal to the students directly, and I spoke at length of my friend, James B. Jones, who was killed in action at age 19. The jokes we played on each other ... the trouble we would have gotten into if only the sergeants had found out "who did that!" ... the heat ... the rain and mud and bugs ... the bodybags ... and the last night of J.B.'s life at Đà Nẵng Vietnam. Total silence.
      I told of how the next morning, still wearing my flack-jacket and helmet and carrying my M-16 weapon, I entered the dispensary where J.B. was carried only hours earlier. Two medics came out of a back room ... is that where he is?---"I want to see J.B.'s body." But he was not there, and had already begun his final journey home.
      I tried to make eye contact with those in the front rows, as I told of a letter from Jim's mother, and the pain she and his father felt. Was any of what I was saying making sense? I could see that some of the girls were actually crying. The guys were setting on seats' edges and listening intently ... as I remembered Vietnam.
      I asked the "young men" in the auditorium what they would consider important in their lives today, if they "knew their lives could end within a year from today." I told them that Vietnam was "not a place you would want to go," but at the same time was not a place I regretted going to---and yet it was impossible to explain what that meant or convey "what it was really like"---but that Vietnam had a life-changing impact on me, in that I could never go back to those days-of-innocence I knew at Millikan High School.
      The bell rang signaling end-of-assembly, and usually the teenagers would charge out of the auditorium, as I had done years before, ... but they remained seated, and quiet. The Principal, who had sat down on a folding chair stood up, shook my hand and thanked me with a quick embrace and pat on the back. My God ... did the Principal that used to threatened to skin me alive just hug me? The students had not begun to stir, and I noticed the second-assembly students were peeking in the doors to see why they could not yet enter. I walked from the podium toward the wings, and after a few steps the students began to rise, and applaud . . . then amazingly, cheer and whistle and the cheering became loud as if Millikan's football team had just won the State Championship. I stopped, totally surprise---shocked really, and turned to face them. The noise and shouting tapered off to a ripple. I was too choked up to say anything---and what had I said anyway?---so I just simply popped a salute and walked off stage. The cheering started a new.
      After second-assembly, some of my old high school teachers came backstage and shook my hand. Some were worried about "the war getting serious." As I left the building through a side door, several students from first and second assemblies were waiting. Some said they had brothers or fathers in Vietnam. One teary eyed girl said that her brother had died in Vietnam, and wanted to know if I had known him there.

      Years later I would occasionally return to Millikan High School, as a police officer, and notice the Memorial Bulletin Board's growing list of alumni killed in action in Vietnam. The war was still roaring along, with years to go, and the stories of Vietnam veterans being spit on and cursed were common knowledge. I would remember my Veterans' Day talk, and recognize it for what it really was ...
My Welcome Home, 1967.

The students and staff at Millikan High School remembered and honored their Veterans...and still do to this day with the Alumni Memorial posted at the campus' main entrance.

 
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