Kristina Micali, whose father served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, has her photo by retired Army pilot Victor Rose Jr. in front of a helicopter Thursday on the National Mall. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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It’s been 50 years since U.S. soldiers and prisoners of war left Vietnam in 1973 to return to the United States. But Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said he remembered their arrival all too well.

“Our service members came home to little fanfare,” said Carper, who served three tours as a naval flight officer in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. “No ‘Welcome Home’ ceremonies, no parades. Today we're here to do what should have been done some 50 years ago.”

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Carper and high-ranking military officials gathered Thursday to welcome Vietnam War veterans to a homecoming celebration on the National Mall. The event, sponsored by the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration, is meant to honor people who served in the military during the war.

On Thursday, pop-up tents with different war-related exhibits were scattered across the Mall. Vietnam-era helicopters were on display. About 200 posters were positioned along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, each with the faces and names of troops unaccounted for. Trina Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the Vietnam War Commemoration, said about 1,000 people visited the exhibit areas Thursday morning. Officials scheduled live music and other celebratory activities for the event, which runs through Saturday.

At the opening ceremony, the U.S. Navy Band played musical interludes as speakers walked onto the stage. A person dressed as a soldier wearing a combat helmet posed with attendees, including about 10 women who wore matching “Daughters of the American Revolution” T-shirts. Four Vietnam War-period helicopters flew across the sky in formation as a woman sang the national anthem.

Maj. Sean Klay sat with his 8-year-old son watching the events. His son, Ian, leaned on Klay’s shoulder as members of the military walked by. Klay, who said he had been in the Army for 21 years, wanted his son to learn about those who fought in the war.

“I don’t have a personal connection, considering this war ended about 50 years ago and I am 42,” Klay said. “But we’re excited to thank those who served.”

Diana Kupchella, a retired Air Force colonel who was a flight nurse during the war, said she wanted to commemorate “Operation Homecoming,” the 1973 plan that led to the return of American prisoners of war from Vietnam. Kupchella called it the highlight of her career but said there were times when her service was not cause for celebration.

“When we came home, we were spit on and cursed at,” she said. “There were all kinds of awful things. It’s nice that is not at all what is happening now.”

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U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said at the opening ceremony that those serving during the war were treated unfairly during a time of division.

“Too often, instead of being thanked, you were blamed or scorned for serving your country,” he said. “Let me put it plainly: You deserved better than that.”

Del Toro spoke to a crowd including about 50 Vietnam War veterans. When another speaker asked them to stand, military members and the audience clapped and cheered. Some veterans put their arms around one another.

Carper, 76, said that on some mornings in D.C., he runs through the Mall to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, touching the Wall that lists the names of those who were lost during the war. He said he hoped the event would pay tribute to the fallen and give thanks to those still alive.

“We’re here to welcome home our Vietnam veterans with honor and say: ‘Thank you to you and your family for your service and for your sacrifice,’” Carper said. “Can I get an amen?”

“Amen,” the crowd replied.