SEBRING -Hand-drawn American flags, thank you letters, a hand shake and a word of appreciation from students young and old meant a lot Friday to seven U.S. military Vietnam War veterans.
The preschool-through-12th-grade students of Highlands University Preparatory School thanked the six men and one female veteran, who served their country in a time of war, but received no thanks or appreciation when they returned to the States.
From the shy preschoolers who presented pencil drawings, to the older students who showed their gratitude with a firm handshake, a word and letter of thanks, the veterans smiled and appreciated the recognition.
"I was overwhelmed," said Fred Norton. "It was nothing like this," he said, talking about his return to the U.S. in 1968. "We were spit at and called baby killers. So something like this is unbelievable."
U.S. Army veteran Alan Forbes, who served in Vietnam in 1967-68, called the school's gesture of thanks wonderful.
"When I came back, you came back alone; one day you were there; the next day you were sitting at your kitchen table; very strange. We just came home alone and that was it."
U.S. Army veteran Fred Edwards, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, said: "We never had a welcome home or anything sort of similar to this. We just flew home and was just rejected by everybody and our families and friends and loved ones.
"To have something like this at this age in my life is quite an honor to be standing here and having the kids appreciate and write thanks to us that we never had in 1968-69 when I came home."
U-Prep's Student Government Association President and freshman Nathan Stephens said his stepfather, who was a Vietnam veteran, told him of the difficult times serving in the war.
His stepfather died about two years ago from a disease related to Agent Orange, which was a herbicide/defoliant used by the U.S, military during the war, Stephens said.
His stepfather had talked about how his welcome home was not the best.
"It's really sad because they have given so much to us," Stephens said.
Morale was high after World War II, but there were a lot of unknowns with the Vietnam War, he said: "Jungle warfare, chemicals, we just weren't expecting it.
"But, these soldiers, they've given everything; they are the real heros," he added solemnly.
Recognizing the final withdrawal date of all combat and combat-support troops from Vietnam on March 30, 1973, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2011 designating March 30 as national "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day."