Michael Smith  /  The Wyoming Eagle
William Tallerdy: "People made me feel like scum" about serving in Vietnam.
updated 8/5/2005 11:23:56 AM ET 2005-08-05T15:23:56

Still in his Army greens, William Tallerdy barely had both feet back on American soil when a man came up to him, demanding to know if he was returning from Vietnam. Then, right there in the airport, the heckler punched the veteran in the face.

Tallerdy exploded. The police and his relatives had to restrain him.

Soon after, he threw out his war ribbons. That was 1967.

“I was always proud of my military service,” said Tallerdy, who is now 57 and lives in Cheyenne, Wyo. “It was just that people made me feel like scum.”

Tallerdy wasn’t alone. Many returning Vietnam veterans, faced with a hostile public, threw out their medals. Some, like former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, even did it in public as an act of protest. Others simply tossed them in drawers and foot lockers — if out of sight, perhaps out of mind.

Four decades and a nation friendlier to the military, though, have helped a number of veterans come to terms with their service. Now, they regard their medals with a renewed sense of pride — and are replacing them or dusting them off.

“We made peace with the former enemy,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. “And we made peace with a former enemy that had defeated us, which is extremely hard to do.”

Tallerdy requested his Purple Heart medal a few years ago. Today, the replacement is in a cabinet alongside eagle figurines, dog tags and other war memorabilia.

The Pentagon doesn’t keep statistics on replacement medals, according to spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke. The anecdotal evidence from the veterans themselves, however, suggests the numbers are high.

While Tallerdy displays his Purple Heart in his living room, William Muns shows off his honors — among them the Good Conduct and Vietnam service medals — on the wall of his office in Beaver County, Pa., where he is the county’s director of veterans affairs.

Muns had stashed his medals and his uniform inside a foot locker when he came home in January 1968. He wanted to move on. He never talked about the war, not even with his family.

A prod from his wife
Then, five years ago, his wife brought his medals out and created a shadow box for him.

“’You were there. You were exposed. You were put in harm’s way,”’ Muns recalled her telling him.

Many who served in Vietnam, Muns said, are in the process of “coming out” as the passage of time has changed feelings about that war.

“Today we’re showing ourselves because we want those men that are active right now to know that they are welcome and they are being supported,” Muns said.

Honored though he was, John Wallace packed up his medals because he just didn’t want to relive that moment when he helped men out of a downed helicopter before a B-52 strike.

That changed in 1989 when Wallace began doing advocacy work for veterans.

'I was feeling better'
“The doors started opening up in my mind,” Wallace said. “I was feeling better, I was relating more to my brothers in arms than I was to the civilians.”

Now, he’s president of the Vietnam Veterans of America state council in Maine and keeps his medals, which include the Bronze Star and Air Medal, on the wall in his computer room.

“They see that and it sort of makes them feel better,” Wallace said of younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “They can ask about how I got them, I can explain to them how I got them. It makes them feel better because what I went through was maybe worse than what they went through.”

Tallerdy traveled to Branson, Mo., last month for the first Operation Homecoming USA, a weeklong tribute to Vietnam veterans. The experience moved him profoundly.

“I think now,” he said, “it’s almost become prestigious to say that you’re a Vietnam veteran.”

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