On the most recent Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, a Vietnam Veteran carried, instead of wearing, his white Honor Flight ball cap, most of the day, says George Rickey.
“He was wearing an army green cap that read ‘Vietnam Veteran’ until he got to the Vietnam memorial,” Rickey recalls. “When we were ready to leave the wall, he took off his Vietnam Veteran cap, laid it at the base of the wall, put on his Honor Flight cap, and walked away. He left a part of himself at the wall—forever connected.”
That connection and sense of respect for veterans – especially Vietnam vets – stands in stark contrast to the personal reception many local veterans reported receiving when they returned to the U.S. from that county in the late 60s or early 70s.
The Honor Flight schedule includes a brief send-off from the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, a welcome at a D.C. area airport, a tour of several of the war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, and a welcome home celebration that usually attracts hundreds of friends, family and members of veterans organizations who gather to say “Welcome home” and “Thanks.”
The applause and hugs are a far cry from what many Vietnam veterans recall receiving.
“The reception at the airport when we returned was awesome,” says Craig Streeter, a Vinton veteran who served in Vietnam. “It was a far cry from getting spit on in Chicago when I was in uniform.”
Streeter is not the only Vinton veteran who had that experience. Ron Geiger, a VFW member had returned from Vietnam for his father’s funeral, when a protestor spit in his face at a Seattle airport.
Not every veteran had that rude reaction from fellow Americans; Honor Flight participant John Whitson of Vinton said he did not experience any of that upon his return.
Yet, says Rickey, the gathering of Vietnam veterans for Honor Flights has given him the opportunity to hear many stories like Streeter’s.
“I think it is that commonality of experience that bonds veterans on the flights,” he says. “Especially the Vietnam Veterans. They are with fellow veterans who accept and appreciate them for their service, which is something many of them never experienced when they came home. I had a Vietnam veteran tell me that when he landed in Oakland California when he came home, they were told to go into the airport bathrooms, take off their uniforms, and change into civilian clothes.”
Streeter thanked all of those who made his Honor Flight day special.
“The whole day was awesome,” he said. “All of the monuments were very good. The VietNam Wall was very moving for me, along with Arlington. Meeting Senator Joni Ernst was another highlight for me.”
Rickey said he has accompanied veterans on about 20 of the 27 Honor Flights his organization has arranged in the past several years.
“I have had ample opportunity to interact with the Veterans we take to Washington, D.C., as do my fellow board members and staff,” he explains.
He has witnessed similar reactions from many other vets who served in Vietnam, while many back in the U.S. were protesting the war and taking out their anger on those who served there.
“The reactions of many of them when they arrive at the Vietnam Memorial Wall is telling,” Rickey says. “They stop, pause, look at the names, or find the name of someone they served with, and it is as if time stops and they are transported back to that place, that era. Heads drop, you see them take big deep breaths, then they shake their heads and move on along the wall. In April of last year, after we did a group photo at Arlington National Cemetery and were ready to board the busses, a Vietnam Veteran came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Your group has done a great deal to help me start to heal my heart. I feel better now for having gone over there and done my duty. Thank you.’”
And, says Rickey, to really see the impact of an Honor Flight, especially on Vietnam veterans, the welcome home reception at the airport late at night is the place to be.
“Just watch their reactions as they come into the terminal, and see hundreds of people welcoming them, thanking them for their service, not berating them, calling them names or spitting on them. For many of them, it was years coming, but from the number of wet eyes on the Veterans, it helps with some of the hurt,” he says.
Our original intent of the Honor Flight movement was to focus on the WWII Veterans, because the passage of time would severely limit our opportunities to provide them with this trip.
“At one point, there were figures indicating that we were losing those Veterans at the rate of about 1000 per day,” says Rickey. “As time passed, there were fewer and fewer available. Our decision was to open up the invitation to those Veterans of the Korean War. Called “The Forgotten War” perhaps because it fell between WWII and Vietnam, some 33,686 American died in combat with some 4,759 missing. Because there was only a 5-year separation between the end of WWII and the beginning of Korea, with the advancing age of those Veterans, we soon found ourselves again racing against time to reach as many of them as we could, while still taking those WWII Veterans who applied. We vowed we would never fly an empty seat on our plane. We then, in 2015, began including Vietnam era Veterans on our flights. So our flights our now mix flights of all three conflicts.”
Three differing conflicts, 3 different generations of Veterans. Yet, says Rickey they all share the commonality of having worn the uniform.
“A shared experience; perhaps that is why many of the stories we hear across all three groups have common threads,” he explains. “With the WWII Veterans, it was a global experience.”
One of the funniest conversations Rickey says he ever heard on a flight was between a WWII vet and a Vietnam vet. The WWII Vet had served on Guadalcanal. The Vietnam vet told him “man, I bet you had never heard of that place before you went there, did you?” The WWII Vet looked at him and laughed and said “I bet you never heard of Vietnam either before you went there.”
“They both had a pretty good laugh at that,” Rickey recalls.
Rickey believes Korean Veterans, even though many would rather forget their experiences, resent the fact that it is often referred to as “The Forgotten War.”
“Which is why many of them will linger at the memorial, looking at the etched photos on the wall, the figures on patrol, the sheer numbers that were involved in the war. I think they feel that here, they are not forgotten. It is a striking tribute to the men and women who fought there,” he says, “Sort of ‘Forgotten no more,’ at least at this spot.”
Impact of Honor Flight on veterans, families
“I have had a Veteran tell me with tears running down his face of the experience of laying wounded in a field for 6 hours until a stretcher team could get out to him,” says Rickey. “So yes, many may relive some bad memories, but they also are able to open up and talk about them with their fellow veterans on the flight. That may well translate into also sharing his or her history with family members who have always wanted to know what his or her life was like then. Every board member or staff member who has been on a flight has heard similar stories.”
Another thing that the Honor Flights do, Rickey says, is to allow a veteran who may have never opened up about his experiences, to open up in the secure environment of being with people that understand his feelings, etc.
“It is sort of a ‘been there, done that’ experience with people who have been there and done that,” he says. “We have had a lot of families who tell us that prior to the flight, they never knew what their veteran did, because he would not talk about his service or experiences. After the flight we hear from a lot of the same families who then tell us that the Veteran is more open to talking about his service, and the families are learning more about that period of his or her life. A lot of families have gotten closer.”
Call it what you want: Closure, healing, comradeship, solace.
Whatever you call it, Rickey says, Honor Flights have helped nourish it in many veterans and their families.
“We truly believe that many of our Veterans have encountered it on the Honor Flight. And to date the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight has been able to make this experience available for 2,309 Veterans from all three conflicts.”
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