Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world. A veteran does not have that problem.
In January of 1971, I flew into Seattle, Washington after having served a one year tour of duty in Vietnam. It was on a Flying Tigers chartered DC “Stretch 8” and there were over two hundred jubilant GI’s on the flight, from all military branches.
We received a short briefing at the Air Force base, (oblivious, few heard the message) before being released to make our way home. For most of us, it was the happiest day of our lives.
After a short bus ride to the commercial airport, we entered a tunnel on our way to the main concourse to arrange our flights home. Midway through the tunnel, however, our feelings of joy and relief stopped abruptly when we were pelted with garbage by groups of people on both sides of the tunnel. Shocked, angry and humiliated we ran out of the tunnel; some of us yelling and cursing.
Most of us who served during that time were aware the war was unpopular, however we never expected anything such as that. But as we were to find out, this was just the beginning of a long period of hostility and isolation. Surprisingly, many Veteran’s organizations during that time also rejected Vietnam War veterans; a bitter pill to swallow indeed. As time passed, we put on our big boy pants and moved on. But the issue remained, festering.
In 1982 the Vietnam War Memorial, commonly known as “The Wall” was built in Washington D.C. Inspired by Vietnam War veteran Jan Scruggs, and funded mostly by Vietnam Veterans, The Wall became a gathering, healing place for many Vietnam Veterans. President Ronald Reagan championed the monument and spoke at the unveiling.
A period of slow reconciliation followed that opening. Welcome home parades were held in some cities and towns all across the nation. Slowly, the old wounds started to heal, though many veterans remained bitter regarding the hostility and abuse.
After the Gulf War in 1991, Vietnam War veterans made certain new war veterans were welcomed home and treated properly. One organization that was formed by Vietnam veterans, “Vietnam Veterans of America”, made it their slogan:
“Never again will one generation of Veterans abandon another”.
Their powerful message has been honored.
The Honor Flight
Recently I had one of the finest experiences of my life, attending an Honor Flight with my son Billy, who was my guardian. The Honor Flight organization hosts a trip to Washington D.C. for all military veterans who care to go. In D.C., the veterans are taken on a tour of many of our nation’s finest monuments. Many of my Veteran friends who had already been on the Honor Flight encouraged me to go.
Being able to take in all the great sites of Washington D.C. was indeed great, but that’s just one aspect of this marvelous experience. The Honor Flight staff, composed of all volunteers, welcome each veteran to the airport in the morning, and tend to them every step along the way. They provide them with meals, beverages and information about their day as well. They offer wheel chair assistance to those who need it, and any other item the Veteran’s may need or want. They make every veteran feel welcome and ensure the trip is an enjoyable one. I cannot say enough about these wonderful people, who donate their weekends to our nation’s veterans.
At the Milwaukee airport which we flew out of, many people from the community were there, along with the volunteers, to welcome and cheer for us. Various local agencies provided greetings with fire trucks, police cars and Honor Guards. The pride we felt shown through in our eyes.
After our flight landed at the Washington D.C. airport, we were again greeted by a very large group of people throughout the whole airport, welcoming us, cheering for us, playing music and singing. And again, local agencies provided police escorts and Honor Guards, as we were bussed to our D.C. destinations. It was difficult to choke back the tears.
Etching of my friend’s name on “the Wall”
Like me, many had family members or friends for guardians, who tended to us throughout the course of the day. I got to spend a rare day with my son Billy, and it was wonderful for me. We chatted about the many monuments we visited, and discussed their significance. It was my honor to share my visit to the Vietnam Memorial with him, and take an etching of a good friend who was killed in an attack after I had just left him. Billy and Honor Flight volunteers patiently listened to my telling of the incident, and even video taped it. Again, very hard to hold back the emotions, and humbled by the support.
In addition to the Vietnam War memorial, which included the Vietnam Women’s memorial, we also visited the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR memorial, the WWII and Korean War Memorials, the Air Force memorial, Arlington Cemetery, the National Mall and the Pentagon. Along the way we were able to see the White House and the Washington monument. I may have missed some that we took in, it was a busy day.
At the Vietnam memorial, I also viewed others who were killed during my tour of duty, along with some friends from my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin who were killed in the war. While visiting the Women’s Vietnam memorial, I thought of my friend Penny who was a Red Cross donut Dollie volunteer then, and also my friend Rene. Donut Dollie is such an inadequate description for all that Penny and the other Red Cross volunteers did during their time in Vietnam.
Dad in WWII
At the WWII Memorial I thought of my Dad who served in Europe in the Mechanized Calvary under George Patton. I thought of his brother John, my uncle, an infantryman who was killed in the war. I also thought of my father-in-law Bill who served in the Mountain Division in the European theater.
At the Korean War Memorial, I thought of my good friend Frank who was an infantryman turned cameraman during that war.
Proud father with son
The Air Force Memorial carried many memories for me, including my time at Grand Forks Air Force base in North Dakota, my time in Vietnam, and at March Air Force base near Riverside, California. I served with many fine people during my four years, and remembered many of them as my son and I took in the striking memorial.
It must be noted that during our tours of the various monuments, many other visitors, recognizing us as veterans, stopped and thanked us for our service, adding another great experience to a day full of great experiences.
During our visit to Arlington Cemetery, we witnessed the “changing of the guard”, a solemn and moving event. Our group had an excellent view as we stood watching silently and respectfully.
Our last stop in D.C. was at the Pentagon, which along with a lot of “awes” and “ahhs” brought a few laughs. Before we left our bus, an official pulled up with sirens blasting and lights flashing. He warned us not to take any photos of the huge complex.
Since the building is so large it can be seen from space, I don’t think it’s much of a secret. We milled around in the parking lot a bit, and left the giant compound after about twenty minutes. I believe there’s probably at least ten thousand real spies lurking around the D.C. area, so a group of mostly senior citizens from Wisconsin might not be the worst threat they are faced with, but naturally we were respectful of the rules. ?
Back at the airport we were greeted by more very nice people, and left our wonderful capital soon after. During the flight home, we were all handed letters of thanks and support from friends and family, another kind act, provided by our guardian. Most of us were once again overwhelmed with emotion, as we read through the thoughtful, kind messages.
Back To Milwaukee
Proud Veteran Joe and family (see note)
The flight back to Milwaukee was somewhat subdued, as we sat, digesting our letters and notes, along with the fantastic day we just had.
But the day wasn’t over yet. As we entered Milwaukee, the whole airport was lined with greeters who showered us with more kind words. As each of us got to our airport destination we found family and friends with signs and wonderful greetings. My daughter JoAnn, grandchildren John and Lucy, daughter-in-law Jessica and her mother were on hand with signs, waving and shouting. Now Billy and I were both overwhelmed.
The car ride home, with another friend who was on the first flight was filled with joyful thoughts of our great day. I don’t think I got much sleep that night, and was keyed up for a few days after.
I am very grateful and thankful to all who made this trip possible, it was an overwhelming, humbling event. Enough can’t be said for the founders, volunteers, sponsors, donors, family and friends. Please forgive me if I have missed anyone.
The unhappy memory of my return from Vietnam in 1971 may never be completely expunged, but the Honor Flight has given it a good beat down!
Note: My late wife Ann, supported all of my Veteran’s antics and activities throughout the years, and I honor her memory here as well.