PARIS — Willie T. Hunter had just returned home from Vietnam, where he had lost his hearing, permanently, in his left ear, and had narrowly escaped death after being hit by a rocket.
Wearing his U.S. Army uniform, he was pelted by a tomato and a lemon, Hunter recalled, while getting off a plane shortly after his arrival in the states.
"When we came back, we were called baby killers," Hunter said.
It's that experience that motivates Hunter, 64, of Louisville to help veterans who served in recent conflicts in the Middle East.
"I had a bad taste in my mouth for a long time," said Hunter, who served in the Army for 20 years. "I didn't want them to go through what I went through."
On Thursday, Hunter was among the veterans from past conflicts who gathered at Runnymede Farm, a Thoroughbred farm, with veterans currently in the Warrior Transition Battalion in Fort Knox, which helps injured soldiers make the return home or to their unit.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart, a charitable organization, and the Clay family, which owns the farm, invited the veterans on a private tour of the farm as a way to show appreciation for the sacrifices the soldiers made.
Runnymede Farm was established in 1867 and is the oldest continually operating Thoroughbred nursery in Kentucky.
The tour included a preview of the Runnymede yearlings being prepared for the Keeneland September yearling sale.
"I preach to them that Kentucky loves soldiers and they hold them dear to their hearts," said Linda Brashears, a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army Reserve in Louisville and a member of the Warrior Transition Battalion.
Brashears, 54, served in Iraq two years ago and received a moderate traumatic brain injury.
Christopher M. Smrt, a former department commander for Louisville's chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said the gathering was to help make young veterans aware that there is support for them.
"So they know they don't have to travel this path alone," Smrt said.
The veterans say the military culture has since changed and more support is being offered from other veterans who have gone through similar experiences.
That's what made Thursday's trip special.
Attis Bennett of Cecilia, served in the army during World War II and the Korean War. He was hit with a mortar round and ended up being in the hospital for 60 days.
He received his Purple Heart only recently, after 56 years, because paperwork was lost.
"I still go to counseling because you never get over it," he said. "Everybody needs help and the mind can get hurt just like the rest of your body."