At the conclusion of 2018, several local Vietnam veterans had the opportunity to reflect on a memorable three-day trip to Washington D.C., which was made possible by the Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee.
The Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee took off last October for its eighth mission, which included visits to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the Arlington National Cemetery, memorials for those who fought in World War II, the Korean War, and, of course, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The veterans received a warm sendoff on the morning of Friday, Oct. 12, that included a flag ceremony and the presentation of a proclamation to each veteran by State Representative Timothy Hill. After a stop at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington D.C. on Saturday morning, the veterans made their way to Arlington National Cemetery. The trip to Arlington had a sizable impact on the veterans.
“You drive through here and realize all those stones represent a person, a good person,” Bill Hight said.
While at Arlington, the veterans witnessed the ceremonial changing of the guard, and Vietnam veteran Richad Elders had the opportunity to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It was very moving. I’ll never experience anything like it again,” Elders said.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial obviously had a tremendous impact on the veterans. Don Booth, who lost a friend in Vietnam was able to locate his name on the wall thanks to the help of a park assistant, who rubbed his name on a piece of paper and gave it to Booth.
“Brings tears to your eyes,” Booth said. “It’s wonderful.”
Many visitors leave tributes at the memorial, including flowers, American flags and teddy bears. Someone even left a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the license plate “HERO” parked against the wall. All items, unless perishable, are kept in storage at the National Park Service Museum.
Vietnam veteran Steve Peeno, who served in the army, brought his company yearbook and several photographs to place at the wall.
“So much happened, words don’t express the feelings we have here,” Peeno said.
After a stop at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, the veterans headed home on Sunday. During the ride back to the Tri-Cities, the veterans were treated to mail call, where they received cards and messages from their friends and families.
Unlike soldiers who returned home from World War II and Korea, the many Vietnam veterans never received a hero’s welcome. In fact, the controversy surrounding the United States’ involvement in the conflict left many veterans uneasy about telling stories about their time in Vietnam.
“It’s like having a whole year of your life that didn’t exist,” veteran John Idol stated. “When you first get back, you don’t think about it much. Then you begin to wonder why no one asks the questions. Then you begin to feel like maybe it isn’t something you should talk about.”
Those who made the trip to Washington D.C. received a hero’s welcome when they arrived back in Bristol. A massive crowd was waiting at the Best Western Hotel to enthusiastically greet the veterans at the end of their three-day journey.
“For a long time, we were not remembered, but what the Honor Flight has done with this trip has swiped the slate clean,” one veteran said.
For more information on the Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee, visit www.honorflightnetn.org.