Long after dark, hundreds of people quietly lined the streets of downtown Waconia behind red, white and blue luminarias to await their soldiers’ return.

Korean and Vietnam-era veterans peered through bus windows, waving to the crowds of well-wishers who were there to thank them for their service. Landon Anderson, 6, twirled an American flag in one hand and clutched a hand-drawn poster in the other for his grandpa that read, in a child’s scrawl, “You saved us.”

It’s been more than 40 years since the veterans left the battlefield. Yet for many, Wednesday night marked their first true homecoming. The Vietnam vets had returned to a polarized country where many condemned them for fighting. Rather than parades, they were greeted by angry protests.

But now their neighbors were banding together to give them the formal recognition they said was long overdue.

“We wanted to give them the welcome they deserved,” said Lt. Col. Stacey Meiser of the Minnesota Air National Guard, who stood at attention saluting the vets alongside her husband, Senior Master Sgt. Chris Meiser.

The 142 Carver County veterans had just returned from a whirlwind 16-hour “honor flight” to Washington, D.C., to tour Arlington National Cemetery and the Korean and Vietnam War memorials. Dozens of community groups pooled their resources to raise nearly $100,000 to fund the all-expenses-paid trip.

For most of the aging men, it was their first chance to see the national tributes erected to their service — and that of their fallen comrades — with their own eyes.

“It’s about fulfilling that dream,” said Rick Wagener, co-chairman of the Waconia Lions Club, which organized the trip and led the fundraiser. He hatched the idea with Lions member Chuck Anderson as a sequel to the 2007 trip the Lions had sponsored for World War II veterans. Eleven years later to the day, the Korean and Vietnam vets followed them to the nation’s capital.

A warmer reception

Brian Sorensen left his family’s dairy farm in 1971 to serve in Vietnam as a door gunner on an Army chopper. At 19, he could fight for his country but wasn’t yet old enough to vote or drink. While overseas, he received divorce papers from his new wife.

But Sorensen said the hardest part about coming home was navigating a hostile crowd of antiwar activists, who spit at him and called him a “baby killer.”

“Spitting on somebody is just about the most degrading thing you can do,” said Sorensen, 66, of Minnetrista. “You were almost ashamed to be a Vietnam vet back then.”

He found a warmer reception Wednesday, where he could display his military status rather than hide it. Family members and friends waited on the sidewalk with signs and balloons to greet him, the children allowed to stay up late on a school night to see him being honored.

“It teaches our kids and future generations the sacrifice he made for his country,” said Sorensen’s beaming daughter, Jennifer Anderson of Superior, Wis.

Chance for closure

The marathon trip began at 4 a.m. Wednesday when relatives dropped off the vets outside Trinity Lutheran Church in Waconia. As they boarded three buses for the airport, several women hoisted signs for them. One read: “Home of the free because of the brave.”

Doctors and nurses from Ridgeview Medical Center accompanied the vets, some of whom are frail and require wheelchairs. The lightning-fast itinerary included visits to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington and the Lincoln Memorial. They lunched at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, where U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith stopped by to chat.

But the Korean and Vietnam memorials elicited the most poignant moments, organizers said. The veterans took turns tracing the names of friends and family members among the war dead, bringing some of them to tears, said Waconia Mayor Jim Sanborn. Others later confided that seeing the memorials brought the closure they had been seeking for decades.

“It made the whole trip worthwhile,” Wagener said.

Supporters gathered in Waconia’s City Square Park more than two hours before the group was due to return that night. Using light from their cellphones, Lions members distributed personalized posters to ensure that every veteran could spot their own name in the crowd.

A sheriff’s escort, honor guard and local fire trucks led the veterans into town for a seven-block parade as the high school marching band played and people cheered.

Jody Pire of Farmington stood by her Vietnam veteran father, Jon Ittel, while he posed for photos with his grandkids. “This is how it should have been,” she said, “back in 1975.”