They were ridiculed, spat on, refused service at restaurants and turned away from jobs.
But Saturday, many Vietnam War veterans who never received the homecoming they deserved were greeted with smiles, waving flags, hearty handshakes and a sincere "thank you."
Charles Gowen was among the hundreds of vets who, despite nearly 50 years removed from the Vietnam War, walked in a parade for the first time at the 2013 Brimfest Parade.
"I've never been invited before," said Gowen, of Alliance. "I felt kind of slighted about it, but what can you do. I wanted to take the opportunity to do this, and it feels really good to be recognized ... to not get spit on or be called baby killers."
Saturday's parade was a symbolic homecoming for all American veterans, but Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver -- whose father served in World War II -- leveraged his Internet fame to spread the word of a parade shining the spotlight on Vietnam vets.
Thousands crowded downtown Brimfield in response on a cool and rainy Saturday morning bearing signs that said "We Love You" and "Welcome Home" that were directed toward hundreds of vets who served in conflicts ranging from World War II through Afghanistan.
Many receiving medical treatment were brought in on buses from the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. They flashed brimming smiles to adoring onlookers and waved flags through bus windows.
Such an event was foreign and cathartic to many parade first-timers. Vietnam vets Mike Fairhurst and Bill Quin, both of Kent, said they had mixed feelings about the parade, which was also their firsts.
"I'm just not used to this," Quin said. "There's some people we're going to have to walk by, which is going to be hard. We're used to hiding."
Vietnam vet Richard Stoltz' black jacket has a Purple Heart patch sewn on the chest.
"I wear my stuff with pride, and I've been ridiculed for that. Many vets here are wearing their medals for the very first time," said Stoltz, of North Canton. "I think something like this is long overdue for the guys in this area."
Richard Long, of Huron, was one of many Vietnam veterans who expressed their appreciation and respect with Oliver.
"This is the first and only recognition many of us have had," he said. "It's only been 46 years (I told Oliver), but that's all right."
The consensus among other veterans, regardless of their branch or where they served, is the Vietnam vets were overdue for their public accolades.
"These guys never got a proper welcome home, and I truly, honestly believe this is way overdue," said Scott Taylor, of Mogadore, who served in the Gulf War. "This is at the very least what we could do for these guys."
"I'm here for them, and that's why I'm walking today," he added.
"I wasn't spit on, and I wasn't refused food at a restaurant ... I was just ignored," said John Caipen, of Brimfield, who served in the Korean War. "But that's all right. This is long overdue for them."
Parade-goer Christine Smith, of Brimfield, said she came to show support for the vets. Her group wasn't deterred by the pouring rain, as evidenced by their drenched clothes.
"We can brave a little rain if they can brave what they braved," she said.
Her friend, Pam Pinkston, of Brimfield, said the reactions from the smiling veterans were heart warming.
Bill Fidler, of Ravenna, sympathized with the veterans and came out to show his support as well. He said such respect is a "leap" in the right direction for the entire country.
"I bet it's hard for a Vietnam veteran to step up now and be recognized," he said. "Because they were held in such discontent back then, so I bet it's got to be hard for them now."
Charles and Janice Kobb, of Brimfield, were drawn for the veterans as well.
Janice's brother, now living in California, also served in Vietnam.
"This is just a small way of saying thank you for all the veterans who have fought so hard for our freedoms," Janice said.
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