He's ashamed to admit it, but Rick Simpson doesn't remember the names of anyone in his unit in Vietnam.
The 63-year-old Fairview, Ga., resident worked so hard to bury the bad memories, the good ones are gone as well.
"My wife has said I seem heartless sometimes because I can't remember any of the guys I was over there with," Mr. Simpson said. "But I just want to forget about that part of my life."
It's only recently that Mr. Simpson, who served a year in Vietnam and then a year in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, has been able to come to terms with that period and even celebrate it. Since 2001, he's gone from the repressed, silent type to vice president of the Chattanooga chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and said it's one of the best things that ever happened to him.
So Mr. Simpson said he's thrilled to be celebrating Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day today, a weekend-long event in Crossville, Tenn., designed to call attention to the contributions of his generation.
Last year, Dann Dunham, of Crossville, helped Tennessee become the first state to devote a day to Vietnam veterans and planned the inaugural celebration for March 29, the anniversary of the official start of the United States' withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. The event drew 10,000 people and national attention.
Now six states recognize the day, and similar measures are being proposed in 23 more, according to Mr. Dunham. The U.S. House passed a resolution last week that encourages the public to celebrate March 30 with "appropriate ceremonies and activities that promote awareness of the critical role the Armed Forces played in during their service in Vietnam."
This is important, Mr. Dunham said, because "back when we all started coming home, we were not very well received. We never got our welcome home."
But the celebration will recognize veterans from all conflicts, he was quick to add.
"The guys coming back today don't get anything," he said. "The only people who know they're coming and going are their loved ones. It's important that our country does to them what they never did to us."
Mr. Simpson said he thinks the younger veterans actually have it much harder than previous generations.
"As far as bothering you consciously and stuff, Iraq was the worst because you could see it all. It's all in wide-open areas of the desert," he said.
Larry Lint, a 60-year-old resident of Harrison, Tenn., pointed out that any type of war zone is bound to change someone forever. Mr. Lint is embroiled in a legal battle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for $98,000 in back pay he says he's owed for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I can't say that losing my whole adult life was worth it," he said.
While Mr. Simpson and Mr. Lint volunteered to serve, 60-year-old Bill Poole of Hixson was drafted.
"I was forced to fight, and I was very scared," he recalled. "I turned my fear into aggressiveness. I killed people that shouldn't have been killed."
Mr. Poole said he buried his guilt and post-traumatic stress for years until seeing pictures of the Gulf War in the early 1990s "drug it out of me."
He visited Vietnam in February to get some closure, and said it helped to meet the people and see they didn't hold a grudge against him.
But he's still not proud of his medals and commendations, which he keeps packed away. And he doesn't like hanging around other veterans, he said, because many of them seem to glorify their stories to get attention.
"I don't like being around Vietnam vets, because half of them were support (rather than frontline infantry), and they're running around in camouflage and black berets," Mr. Poole said. "I was a Ranger. I did earn my black beret."