RUMFORD — In July 1969, Hal Watson of Rumford was asleep on a plane bound for San Francisco. A stewardess woke him and said Americans had landed on the moon.

At the time, Watson, who served in Vietnam from 1968-69, said it didn’t mean anything to him and he was upset with her for waking him.

Forty-eight hours earlier, Watson had been in the field of war. He was a crewman on a Huey gunship with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, 2/20th Aerial Rocket Artillery unit. The unit flew troop support missions and protected landing zones.

On Saturday, Watson and 32 other Maine Vietnam veterans with the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard were recognized for their sacrifice, courage and willingness to serve their country.

Peter Ogden, director of the Maine Veterans’ Services in Augusta, and Brig. Gen. Jim Campbell, of Lewiston, honored the veterans, awarding them with Maine Certificates of Appreciation during the second annual Vietnam War Remembrance Day at the Rumford American Legion.

The day coincided with the 40th anniversary of the withdrawal of the nation’s last combat troops from Vietnam.

“It’s a really nice feeling to be recognized,” Watson said after the ceremony. “It makes you feel good. I find it difficult to express sometimes.”

Watson said he was working at the Rumford paper mill and attending college when he was drafted into the war. When he returned home, he resumed work in the mill and finished college. Afterward, he taught history for 31 years at Dirigo High School.

Watson considers himself one of the lucky ones who returned to the states: He wasn’t greeted by the political firestorm that many returning Vietnam veterans faced as they were spit on and called baby-killers, drug addicts, psychos and war mongers.

“I was fortunate when I came home, because I had a family that was experienced with military people coming home,” he said. “So I had really good, strong support.”

In contrast, Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, who sponsored the bill last year that created the remembrance day, shared the sentiment of Vietnam veteran Al Pelletier of Norway, who couldn’t attend.

Pelletier served 2½ years in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy’s Commander 7th Fleet Operations, Briggs said, reading Pelletier’s prepared statement.

“I came home to a totally different country,” Pelletier wrote. “My work had been top secret, so I couldn’t speak of it, and after living the horror of being spit on and called a pot-smoking baby-killer, I felt like I just didn’t belong in the country I love.”

Like Watson, Pelletier said he didn’t mention his service for many years, trying to put it behind him. Forty years later, Pelletier, who wrote a song about the experience, said he was invited to sing it at the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Briggs also has a personal connection to the war. Her oldest brother, Augustine Capponi Jr., served with the Marines and was recognized at Saturday’s ceremony.

She said her father served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and in the Seabees. His three brothers also served then in the armed services.

“The Vietnam War was very traumatic for me as a young teenager,” Briggs said. “We all know what the veterans endured on their return home. As a teenager, I could never understand it. I will never forget what I had seen on television.”

When her brother, Gus, returned home, he wasn’t wearing his uniform. She said she asked him why and he said he was told not to wear it for his own safety.

“My brother never really recovered from this war,” Briggs said. He continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other afflictions, she said. “Our family almost lost him three times over the past few years.”

She said thousands of Vietnam veterans still suffer like her brother, and many are homeless. Her goal, she said, is for the day of remembrance to bring many veterans together to help them heal physically, spiritually and emotionally.

“This is not just for me,” Briggs said. “But for all Mainers who wish to say to you, ‘We’re sorry, thank you and welcome home.'”

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