BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. combat troops leaving South Vietnam and the beginning of the end to the United States’ direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops was one of the key provisions of the Paris Peace treaty signed in January 1973 by the United States, North and South Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Two months later, on March 29, the last U.S. combat troops left the country.

For the United States, the Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular military engagement in the country’s history. Some estimates put the number of Vietnamese military and civilian deaths during the war at around 2 million.

The historic day was commemorated back here at home with a ceremony Wednesday morning outside the Portrait of a Warrior Gallery in downtown Bakersfield.

Some 14,000 young men and women from Kern County served their country in a land 8-thousand miles away and 178 never came home.

Those that did – some because they felt a duty to enlist so, some because they had little choice – did not bask in the gratitude of veterans before them or after.

Roger Gonzales served three tours of duty in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

“When we came home it was a bad thing,” he said. “People calling us names and everything.”

That has changed over the past half-century. The public, by and large, grasps their sacrifices. Of the roughly 2.7 million U.S. servicemen and women who served during the Vietnam War era, more than 58,000 were killed, 153,000 were wounded, and 1,600 remain missing in action.

More than a quarter-million who served in Vietnam still suffer from PTSD and other major depressive disorders.

Armando Soliz is the head docent at Portrait of a Warrior Gallery, which hosted Wednesday’s commemoration.  

“It’s taken the general public this many years to finally acknowledge us for our service, to thank us for our service and to get that one phrase that none of us ever got,(which) was ‘Welcome home,” Soliz said.

Kern County’s sacrifice is on display in the gallery’s Vietnam Memorial Room. 178 boys and men – among them Soliz’s brother Thomas, a 1966 Garces High School grad killed when he was just 19. Soliz, who was 14 at the time, says his parents never got over it.

“They were the ones that suffered the most,” Soliz said. “They suffered, my mom suffered for nearly 60 years with the memory of her son that she lost. And I know all of these guys have a mother. They’re all part of that Gold Star family.”

Some families never even got their sons’ bodies back. Kern County still has three Vietnam War era soldiers who are missing in action. Mickey Eveland of Bakersfield, whose helicopter went down in bad weather over the South China Sea. Gilbert Mitchell of Tehachapi, whose A-6 Intruder was shot down over North Vietnam. Stephen Chivira of Wasco, whose helicopter was shot down. His aunt still sometimes comes and sits near his portrait.

Those who came home remember. They are bonded.

Roger Gonzales and his fellow Vietnam vet, Ismael Gonzales, are not related by blood, but by something just as strong. Both served in the 173rd Airborne, and they consider themselves family.

“It’s a camaraderie,” Ismael Gonzales said. “We still have that camaraderie.  If you see all of the Vietnam veterans, we are all brothers in arms. So this is one of the occasions of the year that we all get to get together. And celebrate what we did for our country.”

Roger Gonzales said: “I’m still getting used to people saying, ‘Thank you for your service. Welcome home.’”