The inspiration that initiated the journey of a lifetime for me came from my wife, Pam, and my family after her father, Cliff McCabe, went on an Honor Flight for Korean Veterans to Washington, DC.
I said to my family that I didn’t want to go because, while I served during the Vietnam War, I did not actually serve in Vietnam.
After graduating Basic Training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training), all 200 men went to Vietnam except me and two others. I just didn’t feel that I should be honored because I did not fight.
I was stationed at Camp Samae-San on the Gulf of Thailand for 18 months. My duties were administrative. I worked as a mail clerk, billeting manager, and Thai Labor Fund Manager.
My family continued to encourage me, so in 2017, I signed up to go.
One month ago, I was informed that I would be flying on Old Glory Honor Flight 46 out of Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh on Friday, July 27th during EAA Airventure.
This 7-day event held annually in Oshkosh draws half-a-million people. The airport handles over 17,000 take offs and landings before, during, and after the EAA event. All personnel connected with Honor Flights are volunteers, 100 percent, including the flight personnel of American Airlines, who willingly donate their time for veterans.
We arrived at the airport at 5 am in 65-degree weather and were greeted by the smiling faces and applause from hundreds of people, including the men and women of the Civil Air Patrol.
What struck me with awe was when, prior to boarding the plane, we were asked to bow our heads for a prayer. The official not only asked for a safe journey, but also asked God for emotional, spiritual, and physical healing for the 130 Vietnam Veterans and their families.
One veteran was having a difficult time. A lady, a total stranger, walked up to him and said, “You look like you need a hug.”
The hour-and-a-half journey to DC was the smoothest flight I have ever had. I was sitting between two vets. One served in Northwestern North Vietnam, the other in Southern South Vietnam.
Both men experienced intense combat. One of the men was shot down in three separate helicopter incidents, one from 600 feet up as it spiraled down, killing two soldiers.
Some of my questions were too painful to receive a reply. There was only silence until they wanted to share again.
It was hot and humid at Reagan National Airport. We were given a water cannon salute normally had for heads of state and dignitaries. In the airport terminal, we were welcomed by hundreds of greeters, including police, soldiers and scouts, people of all ages.
Many gave us hugs and presented us with gifts.
We boarded a color-coded bus while the Team Captain took roll call. Everywhere we went in DC we had a police escort, which cleared traffic through red lights. Next stop was the Vietnam Memorial.
There was hardly a sound as we approached the Vietnam Memorial except for the voice of someone asking for help with locating a loved one. I did not personally know the only soldier from Platteville, Wisconsin, who was killed shortly after arriving in Vietnam.
William A. Beyer, a 20-year-old Navy Hospitalman, was killed by small arms fire in 1967. He is just one of almost 59,000 soldiers who perished in a senseless war that the President and defense officials knew in 1967 was unwinnable.
“They say peace, when there is no peace.” Ezekiel 13:10.
The war ripped the nation apart and those returning soldiers bore the blame for a war they had no control over. The emotional and physical scars of all wars will be with the survivors until they die. There is a time coming when they shall learn war no more.
“He shall judge between many peoples, And rebuke strong nations afar off; They shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore.” Micah 4:3
We visited the Smithsonian Institute section of the National Museum of American History-The Vietnam War, The Lincoln Memorial, and several others in a tour around Washington, DC.
Our last stop was at Arlington National Cemetery, where 400,000 graves blanket the hillsides on 624 acres. We stood quietly for half an hour, watching the honor guard move with expert precision and dignity until the changing of the guard took place.
Then we quietly walked back and boarded the buses for the airport.
Again, we were greeted with hundreds of people’s applause as we filed through the airport. On board the plane, we were handed our dinner for the flight home. Thirty minutes into the flight they hollered out, “Mail call!” -- the most welcome words soldiers hear.
On the remaining flight home, I heard envelopes being torn open and occasional weeping because of all the love contained in letters from wives, children, grandchildren, other family members, even total strangers.
It took me an hour to read all mine through tear-filled eyes.
As the plane rolled to a stop back in Oshkosh, we were given another water cannon salute. When the door swung open, we filed out to more hugs from the flight crew and all the Honor Flight personnel.
Down on the tarmac we were greeted by thousands who welcomed us back home. The military personnel were lined up on both sides for a city block. They all saluted us and we them.
Half way down the walkway, my two youngest grandchildren, Marcus and Maggie, ran out and threw their arms around me. That is when I lost it. I glanced up and saw my wife, Pam, and many other family members waiting for their opportunity to say, “Welcome Home!”
I was completely speechless.
As long as I live, I will never ever forget the kindness and honor we were shown. We were thanked hundreds of times throughout the day. We were treated like royalty and received many gifts.
We recently had a sermon on encouragement. I hope I fulfilled that in talking with the soldiers I had met. We are here to comfort and encourage each other in this temporary life.
Freedom is not free. Soldiers die restoring freedom that has been taken. Christ died for everyone, for everyone, to free all of us of Satan’s bondage. Christ’s sacrifice was the price paid for sin, which is death, and makes eternal life possible.
There is a better time coming and it will never end. Death and the grave will be cast into the lake of fire.
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4
Larry Wunderlin is a part-time employee at Kwiatkowski Funeral Home in Omro.