COLUMBIA - Even on a feel-good day full of praise and military pomp and circumstance, the raw emotions of the Vietnam War and the cultural chaos that troops encountered back home flooded back for veterans honored at the First Baptist Church on Saturday.
Hosted by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican and South Carolina's junior senator, Saturday's event on Hampton Street packed an estimated 1,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and supporters into the cavernous worship space.
It honored a military generation that received the harshest of welcomes when they came back to the states - a theme that wasn't lost on Scott or the event's main speaker, Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, who retired in 1995.
For Jim Morris, a 64-year-old from Bethune, the memories come flooding back when he attends events like the one on Saturday.
The unpleasant welcome home is part of what he remembers most.
"How many babies did you kill?," he said he was asked when he got home. "That was the perception of what went on."
Livingston addressed that angst - and the perception that the American military lost the Vietnam War.
"It was not your fault," Livingston said. "It was not the fault of those who served in uniform. It was the fault of the U.S. press and the lack of leadership. For you, you've done your duty. You deserve praise, recognition, you deserve love and you deserve respect."
Scott echoed those thoughts. "These are true American heroes and we should celebrate them every day, everywhere," he said.
He also made a political promise - to fix the troubled Veterans Affairs hospitals, which have been linked to scandal and mismanagement recently. "That is my commitment," he said. "You ought to have the best health care in the world."
Livingston ended on a political note as well, saying leaders in Washington should heed the lessons of Vietnam.
The general said he remembers most the evacuation of Saigon. He was on one of the last helicopters out, and he remembers thousands of Vietnamese begging him to help them get out of the country.
"I had to look at mothers as they were trying to hand me babies and saying, 'Please will you take my baby with you?'," Livingston told the crowd. "That nightmare plays back in my eyes every night."
Alluding to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added: "We're setting ourselves up again - to make the same mistake again."
Editor's note: Earlier published versions of this story incorrectly stated that U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston was on the last helicopter out of Saigon.
Joe Naber (left), 47 of Columbia, and Bob Huddleston, 69, of Mount Pleasant, admire Vietnam-era artifacts outside the First Baptist Church in Columbia where Vietnam War-era vets were honored Saturday.×
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Livingston addresses the crowd at First Baptist Church in Columbia on Saturday.×