Fifty years after the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam, veterans are gathering to remember those who never came back.
Hundreds are expected to attend a commemoration at the Connecticut Air National Guard base this weekend in East Granby.
It has been 33 years since Kjell Tollefsen sat at the controls and it has been 48 since he flew a Huey helicopter into Vietnam.
"Feels about the same,” Tollefsen said. "Doing things you didn't think you could do at a young age, and being responsible for other people's lives."
Tollefsen’s unit was responsible for flying troops in and out of combat zones, and resupplying the guys on the ground.
He was just three days shy of his 21st birthday when he got shot down.
"Crash and walk away from it. Somehow you bury most of that in the back of your mind and years later it can come back and haunt you,” said Tollefsen.
He crashed three times in his one year of duty.
His small team lost 36 men, whom he said he thinks about every day.
However, it was the return home in 1968 that took him by surprise.
"The homecoming was actually worse than the combat in many ways, I think because it was a surprise. You didn't expect it, you weren't prepared for it,” he said.
Tom Pandolfi was in Vietnam before the war even started, spending 27 months in the jungle working with local tribes.
"To this day I’m amazed at the treatment the Vietnam veterans received,” Pandolfi said. “Basically our mission was to convert them to friendly forces."
He said he has started to see the difference in how Vietnam veterans have been treated in the past decade, but said there is still a long way to go.
This weekend is a big part of that, with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the first American combat troops on the ground.
The commemoration will feature aircraft and vehicle displays, speakers, and a concert by the Coast Guard band.
It will also be a place for veterans to gather, meet and be honored.
Nearly all of the events are free and held at the Air National Guard base from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
There is no parking on site, but shuttle buses will transport people from the UTC site on Hamilton Road for free.
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