Thomas Johnson returned from fighting in Vietnam with injuries that would eventually cost him a leg, only to face protesters who directed their anger not just at the war but at the soldiers who fought it.
“We were shoved under the bus,” he said. “I just kept my mouth shut.”
Attitudes have changed, he said. On Tuesday, Plymouth city employees and volunteers greeted Johnson, a retired accountant, with free breakfast and coffee and a warm “Thank you for your service.”
The city hosts an annual Veterans Day breakfast for vets, usually a hearty sit-down meal at Plymouth Creek Center. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the veterans couldn’t attend in person. So the Parks and Recreation Department, with help from the police and fire departments, brought the breakfast to them.
City employees delivered some of the meals to senior housing facilities where only staff can enter the building. At the Waters of Plymouth, a senior residence, veterans watched from behind windows while a cart carrying bags of breakfasts and greeting cards was wheeled inside.
“We’re very proud of you guys,” called police officer Dave Tourville through the briefly opened door. “Thank you for your service!”
Meanwhile, in a corner of the City Hall parking lot near the Plymouth Veterans Memorial, veterans received meals via drive-through from staff and volunteers. At one point, a bald eagle flew overhead.
Each meal — a breakfast sandwich and sides — came with a handful of colorful cards made by Plymouth school students and adults, 1,400 in all.
Some included long letters; others were short but expressed equally strong gratitude.
“I love you sooo much!” read one message printed in orange crayon.
Like the cards, each veteran could tell a different story.
“It’s nice of them to do this,” said Plymouth firefighter Harry Everth as he exited the drive-through. He retired from the Army as a sergeant first class in 2006 after serving 29 years, including in Iraq and Desert Storm. He was in charge of a platoon that lost two men.
“To me, the heroes are the ones that never came home,” Everth said.
Penny Hatcher, a veteran who was volunteering at the drive-through, was in the Army Nurse Corps from 1970 to 1972.
She was so eager to go to Vietnam that she learned the language, but as a children’s nurse stayed in the United States. She said she later heard about other nurses’ experiences.
“What they saw and what they went through — I thank God every day I never got sent,” she said.
Johnson was drafted, and allowed to postpone his tour of duty until he graduated from college. Shortly after, he found himself in Vietnam. He didn’t think much about the controversy surrounding the war.
“You just want to make it from one day to the next — that was our goal,” said Johnson, sitting in his SUV at the drive-through. “I figured I had a job to do and I was just trying to do it.”
He’d been there five months when he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade. His injuries kept him in and out of the hospital for a year, and doctors eventually had to amputate his leg.
No soldier comes back from war without wounds, Johnson said, whether they’re visible or not.
For years he stayed alert for danger, looking over his shoulder, jumping when a car backfired. Other veterans succumbed to PTSD, alcohol, drugs and suicide.
“What you saw, what you did — you can’t get rid of those,” he said. “It never goes away.”
Johnson’s wife, Kay, spoke from the passenger seat.
“He said he would do it again, though, for his country,” she said.