The hundreds of thousands of young men drafted to fight a war in the steamy jungles of Vietnam arrived home, weary and shocked, to hoots of derision and shouts of "baby killers."

They were boys, really, most barely out of high school when they were drafted.

But that shameful episode of American history taught us well, M. Jay Barry, commander of the Vietnam Veterans Organization of Carbon County, said at a ceremony held Saturday in Lehighton to commemorate the start of the Vietnam war.

"In the aftermath of the war, and to this day, Vietnam vets were at the forefront of explaining to the American people that yes, you can oppose conflict. But the people who served, served honorably," he said.

"We as Vietnam vets, we changed the conscience of this nation. We changed the conscience of America. We made this country aware of the way they treat veterans when they come home," Barry said.

"Now, when veterans return from Afghanistan and Iraq, they are treated as they should be. They are welcomed home. We as a nation have our Vietnam veterans to thank for that," he said.

Barry was among those who spoke at the ceremony, held at the American Legion Post 314 in Lehighton.

The disdain that greeted soldiers coming home from that war was a common thread among the speeches.

"World War II ended with joyous victory celebrations in Times Square. Korea ended with a demilitarized zone. Vietnam ended with a helicopter lifting off from our embassy in Saigon," Carbon County Director of Veterans Affairs Henry M. Desrosiers said.

"The veterans of that war, those of you present here today, quietly returned to civilian life, your sacrifice unheralded, your bravery too often ignored," he said.

"Many Vietnam War veterans did not get the homecoming they deserved. Regardless of how unpopular the Vietnam War was, our nations veterans deserved better than to be jeered and spat upon when they returned home," Desrosiers said.

It was tumultuous time in America, said Kevin M. Long, commander of the Lehighton United Veterans Organization.

"It was the height of the Cold War, we had the space race, racial riots, campus protests and public disfavor of a no-win war," he said.

Carbon County Commissioners Chairman Wayne Nothstein told the veterans to be proud.

"It was hard to proud to wear the uniform of the United States soldier. No soldier should ever be ashamed to wear the uniform of any branch of military service. Do not be ashamed of your service during that time 50 years ago. Be proud. Hold your heads high for the honor of wearing the uniform of the U.S. military," he said.

David B. Bryfogle of AMVETS Post 106, Lehighton, gave a brief history of the events that marked the start of the war.

Other speakers included VFW Post 256 adjutant Harry J. Wynn III, who said that 59 percent of the post's membership is Vietnam era.

"You should all be proud of your service. You served with honor and distinction. Thank you for your service," he said.

State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122, thanked the veterans for their service, as did Larry K. Heffley, commander of American Legion Post 314.

Henry Long sang the national anthem, and Wynn served as master of ceremonies.

Roll call of those who didn't return

A total of 58,220 U.S. military personnel died in the Vietnam conflict. Many continue to live with wounds from the war.

Still unaccounted for are 18,075 prisoners of war or missing in action.

Carbon County lost nine men in action. Veteran Ron Neff read their names at a ceremony Saturday at Lehighton American Legion Post 314 commemorating the start of the war.

They are:

Lansford:

Anthony R. Giannangeli

William C. Whitehead Jr.

Michael P. Pavlocak Jr.

Lehighton:

Ronald S. H. Christman

Leon D. Eckhart

Clyde R. Houser Jr.

Palmerton:

Neal G. Bollinger

Clifford L. Sell

Parryville:

Charles R. Jones

Summit Hill:

George M. Bevich Jr.

Weatherly:

Edward N. Beers

Paul Hunter

Samuel O'Donnell

Tamaqua:

Merlin C. Hollenbach, who is buried at St. John's Cemetery, Mahoning Township.