Five years ago, a 1,200-mile bike ride through Vietnam brought Jose G. Ramos closer to reconciling with his agonizing memories as an Army medic during the Vietnam War.
Next May, Ramos plans to embark on another bike ride, one to gain support for a national day of recognition for Vietnam veterans, many of whom still are dealing with trauma they experienced during combat, as well as recollections of hostility some encountered when they returned home.
Ramos, 55, expects to join other cyclists and pedal from his home in Whittier to Washington, to deliver postcards and messages urging President Bush to create a "National Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day."
In Ramos' vision, the day would not be an official paid holiday, but would simply thank veterans for their service in Vietnam.
"The wall in Washington is dedicated to the dead. This is for the live guys," Ramos said. "For us to get the acknowledgment, to hear 'Welcome Home. Thank you. Job well done.' "
Support for Ramos' concept is growing. Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn issued a proclamation last week designating Jan. 27, 2004, as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. Hahn's action came just days after he was contacted by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), an early supporter of the day of recognition.
Also last week, El Monte became the 11th city in California to approve a proclamation for Vietnam Veterans Day, joining San Francisco, La Habra, Montebello and Downey, among others. Outside the state, Eugene, Ore., has gone on record in support of the recognition day.
"I think it's a brilliant idea," said Ruben Treviso, a Vietnam veteran and former lobbyist for the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans organization. "America is very forgetful of its soldiers and its veterans."
The Jan. 27 date that appears on most cities' resolutions is the date the Paris accords were signed in 1973. The treaty called for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood), whose constituents include Ramos, sent Bush a letter last week urging him to proclaim March 30, 2005, Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. After consulting the Vietnam Veterans of America, Sanchez said she selected March 30 because it is considered the date the last U.S. combat operational units left Vietnam.
"The cold reception ... contributed to the inability of so many to reconnect with our society," she wrote. "The small gesture could go a long way toward healing the wounds still suffered by so many Vietnam veterans."
Sanchez offered a House resolution Monday that encourages Bush to proclaim the national day of recognition. According to congressional rules, only the Senate and the president can issue a commemorative day.
The date designated for the recognition is secondary to Ramos. "It's more important to get this thing done," he said.
When he started his campaign in mid-2000, Ramos' goal was much less ambitious: to get Whittier to pass a resolution welcoming home veterans. It took two years to get that done; Whittier adopted a resolution in December 2002. Ramos' focus widened.
It's been slow going, in part because Ramos has paid for most of the effort himself. It has taken the former member of the 101st Airborne Division all over the Greater Los Angeles area. He's made impassioned speeches during city council meetings. He's frequented festivals and street fairs, passing out literature and seeking donations for homemade "Welcome Home Veterans Day" buttons.
He's sent countless e-mails and letters to the president, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, and other elected officials across the country. He does it out of his home office, a tiny bedroom fitted with a 4-year-old computer, a fax-phone combo and piles of boxes.
Ramos insists that planning the bike ride will be a breeze. "I'll sleep on the side of the road if I have to," he said. "I've done the hard part: I've got people's attention."
Ramos said some veterans oppose the creation of the commemorative day. They have told him they are tired of being seen as victims and of begging for recognition that they say won't heal anything.
Many with post-traumatic stress disorder "don't want to have to deal with the trauma again," Treviso said. "Bringing more attention to Vietnam forces veterans to face the issue that you were there. It hurts."
Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington, praised Ramos' efforts. "What made Vietnam different, what will always be different, is that soldiers and sailors didn't get welcomed home," he said. "It was a bad time in America. People don't remember how bad it was."
Ramos does. Nearly two decades after he returned home in 1968, nightmares and flashbacks of combat overwhelmed him. He said he turned to alcohol and drugs. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and, in 1994, attempted suicide.
While attending a veterans support group meeting in East Los Angeles, Ramos found out about the bike ride and decided to take part. He remembers how he barely mustered the will to get off the plane upon arrival in Vietnam.
"I came back much more powerful than when I left," Ramos said. "This war took me for a long, nasty ride, but I overcame it."
He said some people might consider the day of recognition "a little thing, but to us, as Vietnam veterans, it's a huge thing."