When Robert Russell returned home from Vietnam, there weren't parades or people walking up to shake his hand.

Those who noticed he was a veteran sometimes decided to say something, but they weren't expressions of gratitude. It wasn't easy coming home when protestors painted all those who served as "baby killers." 

But times change, and over the years Powell, 70, has had a number of people approach him just to thank him for his service.

Moments like that, and like Friday's Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day celebration in Bakersfield, help take his mind off everyday concerns and, as he put it, "make me feel good inside."

Held at the Kern County Veterans Service Department on Golden State Avenue, Friday's event drew a crowd of a couple hundred to thank Vietnam vets for their service during a turbulent time in U.S. history. 

Sheriff Donny Youngblood, the guest speaker and a Vietnam veteran himself, said when he came back from the war in 1969 people made veterans embarrassed about what they'd done in service to their country. 

Youngblood stayed away from veterans events for years, not because he wasn't proud of his service, but because no one else was.

He was required to go to those events after being elected sheriff in 2006. They still made him uncomfortable, but gradually he's seen a change in how veterans are perceived. 

"If you know a Vietnam veteran, I can't tell you what it means to shake their hand and say thank you," he said. 

John Carrillo, 71, said he didn't experience that change until traveling to Washington D.C. in September through Honor Flight Kern County. People showed appreciation and thanked him, and he enjoyed being around other veterans who went through the same uncomfortable experiences he did upon coming home from the war. 

It was "life changing," he said, to receive a positive, if belated, homecoming.

For some, the emotional pain of what they experienced both in Vietnam and stateside never goes away.

Johnny Azevedo, 81, said it's nice to see the appreciation, but he still feels cut off from others. 

He said it's too late for any ceremony or honor to make any difference to what he experienced back then and still feels today. He said he's numb inside. 

Most people, even those who stop and thank Vietnam veterans, will never have an understanding of what it was like to serve back then, said Gene Bonsal, 69.

The Marine Corps veteran said he was stationed in Africa in 1967 instead of being sent to Vietnam, but still faced some of the same abuse from the public due to being in the military. 

But on Friday, there was only thanks, with lunch included. 

As Dick Taylor, a U.S. Marine veteran and director of the county Veterans Service Department, said, "To all you Vietnam vets here today I want to welcome you home. It's your day, buddy."

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