A warm and gracious hero’s welcome was not something the individuals who served their country in Vietnam were met with when they returned home.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Which is what made the greeting a group of area veterans received before and after they went on the recent Honor Flight of the Quad Cities such a memorable and highly-emotional experience.
On a recent drizzly, Thursday morning, several of the men who took the flight to their nation’s capital gathered around the dining room table of Jerry and Mary Anne Green, of DeWitt.
As they sipped steaming cups of coffee, the veterans exchanged their impressions of a day they’ll never forget.
But unlike many of the memories they carry from the war, these are memories they will treasure.
It was a happy coincidence so many veterans from DeWitt and the surrounding area just so happened to be on the very same flight.
Jerry, together with Alvin Kuehl, George Raes, Larry Walther, Max Hovey and Chuck Morel, all of DeWitt; Ed Grillot, of Wheatland; and Denny Steward, formerly of DeWitt, who now resides in Clinton, all took the trip to Washington, D.C. Sept. 12.
Not all of them were eager to go — at least, not at first.
That included Kuehl, who served in the Army from 1966-1968, and was in Vietnam December 1966 to December 1967.
“I was hesitant,” Kuehl related. “If not for Jerry, I wouldn’t have gone. That’s for sure. (After the war), it was a different time. You were better off not saying anything about it, and going about your business.”
The other men nodded solemnly in agreement, and remembered being urged not to wear their uniforms when they returned home so as not to draw attention to the fact they were soldiers. Walther told a story about being denied service at a gas station as soon as he arrived back in the states, after the attendant saw his uniform in the back seat of his car.
He had been proud of his service in the Naval Airforce; that is, until he’d been made to feel bad about it.
They all had heard about the protests happening back home, and were uncertain how they would be treated upon their return. They even had concerns about their own safety.
The hostility they experienced added insult to injury, after seeing and experiencing things in Vietnam that left them psychologically scarred.
But for these area veterans, the honor flight — from seeing the memorials dedicated to their sacrifices, to connecting with other veterans — helped to soothe some of those emotional wounds.
In particular, finally being on the receiving end of genuinely-loving receptions from friends, loved ones and even total strangers, who applauded them for their service to their country.
“We were in the terminal (at Dulles Airport) in D.C., and there were classes of second-graders there,” Raes said, as he held up a miniature American flag. “They gave us hugs, and I had a little one come up to me and give me this flag. I got a card, too. It was amazing.”
“They didn’t know any of us,” Kuehl added. “That probably surprised me as much as anything. And they were there when we came back through to leave. We knew we would see people at the airport in Moline, but this was in D.C. … that was really something. They had no idea who we were, but there they were, cheering for us.”
Like Kuehl, Grillot had struggled with making the decision to go on the flight. A Navy Seabee who was in Vietnam from 1969-1970, his son offered to take him on the honor flight for his 60th birthday. But his memories still haunted him, and he was leery of how the trip might affect him mentally.
Three years ago, Grillot’s attitude began to change, and he added his name to the waiting list.
Now he can say, without a doubt, he was glad he did.
It ended up being an emotional release of sorts; something Grillot didn’t expect.
“What got me the most, was when we landed back in Moline,” he noted. “I was expecting people to be there, but not that many. All three of my sons were there. Kids were reaching out and shaking our hands … that probably hit me the hardest. It was very emotional, for all of us I think.”
Walther thought he’d be better prepared for the welcome. After all, he is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, who attend funerals of members of the U.S. Military and who go to airports to greet veterans returning from honor flights.
Walther joined the organization to ensure no veteran would have to experience what happened to him and his fellow soldiers.
Needless to say, his experience at the airport — this time, as a guest — was “really something else.”
“I’ve been going to the airport for welcome-homes and send-offs for years,” he said. “For me, it was a little like looking through the looking glass. It blew me away. A little girl offered me boxes of Girl Scout cookies … samoas, my favorite. Her dad had 10 cases of cookies to hand out to the veterans. It was real emotional.”
They all enjoyed seeing the various monuments, and were impressed with how the entire honor flight experience ran like a well-oiled machine.
Jerry had been on an honor flight before, as a guardian to another veteran. His experience was so emotionally-overwhelming and positive, he couldn’t help but urge his friends to participate.
Hovey, who served in the Air Force, was one of them. He figured the trip would be a humbling one.
“It really touched me,” Hovey shared as his eyes welled with tears. “It really did. The Vietnam Memorial hit me pretty hard. Even now, it hits me. To see the names on that wall … it was unbelievable.”
Morel, who served in the Army and used to work as an advocate for Clinton County Veterans Affairs, had sent many veterans on honor flights. Finally getting his own opportunity was as wonderful as he knew it would be.
“I found my wife, Cathy’s, cousin’s name on the Vietnam Memorial,” Morel recalled. “The greetings we got at the airports were kind of heart-wrenching. All these little kids were waving and hollering, ‘USA! USA!’ I couldn’t hardly believe it. It made me tear up, and it made me realize why I was there.”
Steward, who is the son of Evelyn Steward of DeWitt, was unable to make it to Jerry’s house on that drizzly, Thursday morning.
But through his friend, Hovey, he shared one comment:
“The greatest experience ever,” Steward related.
Every single one of the men are happy they went on the trip. Jerry and Hovey’s guardian on the flight, Kathy Engle of Milan, Illinois, said she was honored to be surrounded by so many heroes.
“Being a part of it was so overwhelming,” she said. “I would love to do it again. I wish every veteran would be able to go. Each and every one of you deserves a true welcome home.”