The five words most Vietnam veterans didn’t hear when returning home after their tours of duty were “thank you for your service.” For some of those veterans, it has left scars of resentment toward the country and the people.
However, on April 27, the healing of those scars began for the members of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095 as they boarded Honor Flight Columbus to spend the day touring the nation’s war memorials in Washington, D.C.
Jim Crosbie, a member of Chapter 1095, said he served aboard a submarine in the U.S. Navy from 1961-1968. He said he had to travel to San Francisco from his home port in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to receive his discharge.
“When I got out, we had to travel in dress whites back to the mainland to get out of the Navy,” he said. “When we came into San Francisco, there they were, hollering at us, screaming, calling us baby killers and a few other things. Spittin’. From that day until April 27, I was bitter, really, but it went away April 27.”
Several times a year, Honor Flight Columbus flies area veterans to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to honor the nation’s senior veterans, hoping they will share their personal stories with future generations.
Gary Bell, a member of Chapter 1095, said he was told to change into his civilian clothes at the time of his discharge.
“When I came out of the Army in 1972, I came into California at midnight,” he said. “They told us, as they gave us the tickets to fly back home, that we’d be better off wearing our civvies.”
Bell said changing into civvies didn’t matter because everyone had long hair, and he had a military haircut.
The year that President Richard Nixon resigned, August 1974, Mike Carter was discharged from the Navy. He said he was given the option of being discharged in Philadelphia or in London, where he was stationed.
“They said you’re better off getting out over here, then you can fly home in civilian clothes,” he said. “That’s what I did. I even left my uniform in London. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, because it made you feel ashamed.”
“You know, it was terrible,” Carter added.
But, Carter said he has noticed a change in the attitude of people toward Vietnam veterans.
“It’s a huge difference in what the attitude is now,” he said. “I wouldn’t even have military plates on my car. Now I do … People come up to me now and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
Bell said he thinks it was after 9/11 when he started to notice a change toward Vietnam veterans.
“That seemed to me as when people started to change,” he said. “It was 9/11 that I think caused that.”
Lee Closson said he almost didn’t join in on the trip to Washington, D.C. to see the war memorials, especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, because he didn’t feel worthy due to the fact he was never on Vietnam soil.
“I was in the Navy for four years as crew chief of a rescue helicopter,” he said. “I never had anybody really say much to me. On our Vietnam crews, we were all allowed to grow beards, so when I came back, I fit in a little bit because I had a full beard and I had started letting my hair grow when we were leaving. I always felt sorry for these other guys.”
Closson said the greatest experience on the Honor Flight trip was the crowd.
“In Washington, D.C., when we got off the plane, people were greetin’ us and there were bands. It was just impressive,” he said. “The people in the airport waiting for planes were saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Many times I got tears in my eyes because of how generous people were and nice. There was never nobody that had ever done that for us.”
Closson added the Honor Flight plane was decorated with American flags and red, white, and blue streamers. He said every seat was taken up by either a veteran or a guardian.
“The amount of volunteers that put this together is mind-boggling,” he said. “You were pampered.”
Guardians are volunteers who pay their own way on the flight to partner up with veterans for the day to take care of any needs they might have on the trip.
The group said once everyone was off the plane, they were whisked through Washington, D.C. with a police escort rolling through every red light in a convoy of four buses from the airport to the National Mall.
Harold B. Wolford, Chapter 1095 president, said one of the greatest honors on the trip was meeting retired Sen. Bob Dole, who served in World War II.
“They said when he’s healthy, every Saturday he is there greeting people at the WWII memorial,” Wolford said. “They said don’t touch him, but when he held out his hand, I wasn’t not going to shake his hand.”
The group said when Dole, 95, shakes hands, he looks the person in the eye and thanks them for their service.
“He gave us a challenge coin, which is really cool,” Wolford said. “He is a class act, a true patriot.”
Wolford said he was a little nervous prior to seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but the nerves went away once he was in front of it.
“The wall had a different effect than expected,” he said. “Especially seeing all those people there. It was more of a calming effect than a stress effect.”
Standing in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Closson said he found it to be an emotional experience, and one he’ll remember forever.
“I got real teary in a hurry,” he said. “It’s an experience that I’ll never forget, and I’m super honored that I got chosen to go.”
Howard Poriss said it was his third time to visit the memorial, and it wasn’t as emotional for him as it was for others.
“Those that I was around that had friends killed were very emotional and crying,” he said.
Returning home to John Glenn International around 10 p.m., Wolford said it looked as if the airport had been shut down, but as the veterans stepped off the plane, their names were announced to an awaiting crowd of family, friends, kids, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and many more people. Everyone was cheering for the veterans.
“It was extremely emotional coming back through that crowd and being greeted, thanked and cheered,” he said. “It was unreal. It was phenomenal. I guess they were trying to make up for the 50 years of (crap) we got.”
One member of the group called it a gauntlet of well-wishers.
“I couldn’t hold back the tears,” Bell said. “I couldn’t believe anybody thought about us that much from the experiences I’ve had in the past.”
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.