I went on an Honor Flight in May of this year, and it was a tremendous experience. (Ref blog June 5th, 2023)
My friend, fellow Vietnam War Veteran and writer Tom Keating, recently attended his Honor Flight. Tom has shared his experience with us, please enjoy it.
My Honor Flight
Sitting in my aisle seat, 29C, listening to the “60’s” music tracks on the plane’s entertainment system, it was a bit weird when “Leaving On a Jet Plane” played. However I thought it was fitting as I was flying down to Washington DC on an Honor Flight with fifty other Vietnam Veterans. I served in the Army in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.
I first heard about the Honor Flight when my friend, WW2, and Korean War vet Jimmy Delaney, took the flight about seven years ago. Jimmy raved about his day touring the monuments in Washington till the day he died.
When I inquired to Honor Flight New England, they suggested that I wait till they finished flying all the WW2 and Korean guys before they were ready for Vietnam Vets.
So, I applied, and waited. In the meantime, COVID hit, and all Honor Flight trips were suspended. Happily, this summer they started up again, and I was invited to fly on their September flight.
Honor Flight New England has run sixty-four flights since 2012, and this will be their first all Vietnam Veterans group. Except for two paid members, everyone involved is a volunteer, from medical staff, schedulers, program arrangers, and other support staff.
Every veteran was required to have a guardian, to help us with wheelchairs, climbing stairs, etc. I didn’t need a wheelchair, but many others did. Life, and the effects of wartime service, affected their health.
We left Boston’s Logan airport at 6AM, in front of a cheering crowd of people, and a marching band for a 90-minute flight to Dulles in Washington. The flight and crew was donated by Delta Airlines. It was raining when we arrived in DC, but it stopped as we boarded our touring coaches to begin the tours.
Our first destination was the World War II memorial. It is a grand memorial, located at the end of the reflecting pool, with the Washington Monument across the road, and the Lincoln memorial at the other end of the pool at Lincoln Memorial Circle. Two of our party were veterans of that war, and they marveled at its size and grandeur.
Our next stop was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The massive black wall is the Vietnam Veterans’ altar of sacrifice, everyday people come to pray and remember.
I have visited the Vietnam memorial many times, but today I had a mission. I needed to pay respects to two names on the Wall. Alan was a young man from our town, who died while saving another, and Captain John Carlson died and his body was not recovered when his F5 crashed during a mission. I laid a red rose at the base of each panel where their names appear and said a silent prayer for both. My guardian took video and photos of me doing this so I could share with their families.
We then walked over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, on the other side of the reflecting pool. It is stunning. A group of statues depicts an infantry squad emerging from some woods, each carefully detailed, all covered with ponchos, helmets, weapons; (BAR, M-2 carbines, M-1 rifles) just incredibly powerful images of what the grunt experienced there.
Our next stop, as we gulped down our box lunches from Arby’s, was the Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac. Over four hundred thousand service people are laid to rest there, and the cemetery is running out of real estate. It is beautifully kept and very peaceful.
We were welcomed at the Tomb of The Unknown to watch the changing of the guard.
We stood quietly along with other visitors, as the men of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” meticulously performed the ceremony. (Today’s squad was the “tall squad,” every soldier over six feet in height. There is a medium height squad, and a small height squad, which includes female members of the Regiment). Everyone attending stood with profound respect and somber faces. One of the guides at the Tomb told me that they have issues with wildlife, coyotes, foxes, and a wild turkey that like to attend the ceremonies with the sentries! He also said that the sentries would scuff their heels if they saw a veteran. Sure enough, one walked by me, saw my Vietnam cap, and scuffed his heel. I proudly nodded.
We boarded our buses again to drive over to the Marine Corps Memorial. The massive memorial depicts the raising of the US flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, one of the Marine’s bloodiest battles in World War II. The monument depicts normal men doing monumental work. Very impressive.
There was a notice made regarding the identities of the men on the monument. Neither Rene Gagnon nor John Brady, originally thought to be in the group, were there. The Marines corrected the names to two who actually were there.
We then travelled to the Air Force Memorial, high on a hill overlooking the Pentagon. Three soaring stainless-steel spires, over two hundred feet high, reached to the stars, depicting the “Starburst tactic” of fighter aircraft. Our Air Force group members posed together for photos. I believe the memorial accurately reflected the image of the Air Force – technological, efficient, and courageous. A fine salute to the men and women who fly into danger.
After a lovely dinner, we drove to Dulles for our return flight to Boston. We all gathered in the lobby of the terminal gate and clapped and sang “Anchors Away,” “From the Halls of Montezuma,” “The Army goes rolling along, and ” The Wild Blue Yonder”. There was joy in everyone’s face and voice. It was an affirmation of our shared service time and what we did over 50 years ago. As we boarded our flight, another wonderful crowd cheered us on near the Delta terminal.
Flying back on the plane, I selected the “hits of the eighty’s tunes” to listen to, and reflected on the day. I am in my seventies, and never expected people would welcome and appreciate my time in the war. Everyone, from the greeters at both airports to the aircraft crews and everyone else involved welcomed us warmly. It was very emotional for all.
Sadly, it is the last big event for many of these Vietnam veterans, who are pretty much on “our last light mission.” (Last light was the name of the last helicopter mission of the day in Vietnam.) The world has moved on from us. There are about two million veterans from the last twenty years of war that are on the stage now.
It was a joy to be a part of the Honor Flight.
Tom Keating is a Vietnam Veteran who has worked in a wide range of careers, from education, to broadcasting, software consulting and Internet design. Tom kept a journal during the Vietnam War, which enabled him to publish his memoir, “Yesterdays’ Soldier, A Passage from Prayer to the Vietnam war.” He has also published in The Veteran, the Military Writers Society of America, The Vietnam Memorial 40th Anniversary Tribute, and 0-Dark-Thirty from the Veterans Writing Project, and previously on this website blog.
He lives west of Boston with his wife Kathleen.
Tom’s book may be purchased on Amazon:
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