FORT KENT, Maine — When Lionel Lavoie returned home from Vietnam 40 years ago, he never envisioned the kind of reception he had at the Fort Kent Community High School on Saturday night.
This weekend fellow veterans, students and community members saluted his efforts, but four decades ago he faced open hostility and condemnation.
It took more than 30 years for the former forward radio operator to recover.
“The way we were treated when we got home was really bad,” Lavoie said. “We got spit on and were called baby killers.”
Lavoie was the guest speaker at the patriotic evening, one of three such events held around the St. John Valley last week leading up to Veterans Day.
“This event is a tribute to them,” said Gary Stevens, principal of Fort Kent Elementary School. “Without these veterans we would not have our freedoms.”
For three years Rose Charette, a kindergarten teacher in Fort Kent, has organized special evenings for area veterans.
“Think of all the things these veterans did for us,” Charette said. “They’ve given so much for our families and country, this is the least we can do for them.”
After being served a meal by area Boy Scouts on Saturday, 400 veterans and their families gathered in the school gymnasium for an evening of patriotic entertainment and to hear Lavoie’s story.
From 1967 to 1968 Lavoie was a radio operator for the 81st Motor and Artillery with the U.S. Marine Corps forward observers.
“Before we left basic training we [radio operators] were told we’d have about six seconds to live once we got into the field,” Lavoie said. “You do what you have to do — as a Marine you can’t run away.”
Radio men, Lavoie said, made easy targets as the large antennae they carried made them readily identifiable.
“The enemy knew if you killed the radio man, all communications were knocked out,” he said.
The third week Lavoie was in Vietnam his base was overrun by the enemy. Only he and one other man survived the assault.
After two years of seeing his friends killed around him, Lavoie came home to a nation and culture openly hostile toward Vietnam veterans. That left a bitter taste in his mouth, not to mention some serious post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I tried to commit suicide four or five times,” he said.
“For 32 years I never owned an American flag, I never voted or joined the VFW or American Legion,” Lavoie said. “Ten years ago, all that changed.”
Some fellow veterans got Lavoie into counseling and, through sharing his stories with them and their involvement in local veterans organizations, he found himself coming out of his shell.
With the help and encouragement of his wife of 37 years, Linda, Lavoie obtained a new uniform and the eight medals he was awarded for his service, including the Navy Achievement Medal with Combat Valor.
“For 32 years I lived in almost complete isolation and did not trust anyone,” Lavoie said. “The first seven years after I got back were the worst.”
Nightmares plagued him for years, he said, until he began opening up and talking about his experiences.
“I understood what he was going through because I had a brother in Vietnam,” Linda Lavoie said. “In a real way, I went to Vietnam and back [with Lionel] myself.”
Lavoie was moved almost to tears by the response of the students Saturday night.
“This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s 100 times better than any medals.”