The wall of welcome
Honor Flight brings new meaning to appreciation for 132 vets
WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Vietnam army veteran Harry Streck as he waited for the bus to leave Dulles International Airport. “Never have, and never will (again).”
He wasn’t talking about his time in the service, but about what he had just witnessed getting off the plane of the 19th Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight on Saturday.
The wall of welcome
It was a cacophony of 700 faces and voices, lining the hallways from the concourse to the exit of the terminal, there for one purpose: to honor each of the 132 veterans that walked out of the plane.
If the Honor Flight sets out to honor, the name of the twice-annual event is perhaps an understatement for what it accomplishes, judging by reactions to the airport welcoming committee — and that was only the first thing they had in store.
For some veterans, the flight was as much an opportunity to give mostly Vietnam veterans the homecoming they never had as it was a lesson for those vets in how to receive the appreciation.
“There’s nothing heroic about my service,” said Navy vet Michael Wolfe of Creston, who served in the Panama Canal Zone from 1967 to 1973. “I’m uncomfortable being honored.”
It was something he held on to for decades, and it was something he had to adjust to over the 18-hour schedule packed with things to do just that.
On their way out of the plane, they were surprised to find so many faces, a few more than the 30 to 40 they were told would be waiting for them. That wasn’t the first time they were fibbed to that day.
For different veterans, different parts of the journey to the door touched them. For some, it was the children.
“One little girl came up and gave me a big hug,” said Fort Dodge Navy vet Ron Chitwood. “That was almost … it just stopped me dead in my tracks.”
For Chitwood, the experience ranked in the top five emotional experiences of his life, up there with the birth of his daughter.
It took some of them a long time to make it to the bus. Fortunately, the extra time was built into their schedule.
Some tried to give attention to every child they could, stopping to encourage them on an early Saturday morning.
“Any kid that had a little sign, I tried to give them attention,” said Lyle Faiferlick, Fort Dodge Army veteran, after he made it all the way through.
“Boy, you’re a strong boy,” he said to the little boys who offered their small hands for a hand shake.
“Anything I could do to give them encouragement,” he explained.
Some of them had to take shortcuts to shaking each and every hand for the sake of time, holding out their hand to high five all the hands held out for them as they inched down the line.
“For people to take their Saturday mornings for us,” means a lot, said Gowrie Air Force vet Duane Davis.
“I grew up to serve my country,” he said, joining at the age of 17.
But even with the mentality of service instilled in him from childhood, Davis had a hard time accepting their love.
“They look at us like we’re heroes. We’re not by any means,” he said.
Nonetheless, the man who was spit on when he came home from Vietnam encouraged them — not to reinforce praise for veterans like him, but to reinforce a love of country, patriotism and service to their country.
“At my age, we lose heart with everything going on,” Davis said. “It just stuns you, to see people who still believe in America.”
But as they encouraged the next generations, other younger generations had to encourage some of the veterans to a point of being open to accepting how appreciated they were. For others, it was the woman next to the door.
“They got the short shaft,” said Marie Miller of Centreville, Virginia, in between hugs of various emotional levels. “It wasn’t right how they were treated when they got home.”
She said the look on their faces was why she continues to do it year after year– a contrast to their first homecoming that was either hostile or nonexistent as Vietnam vets during countercultural protests.
Joy, humility and unworthiness are the words Wolfe used to articulate his emotions coming off the plane, before another lady helped reframe his mindset, if only slightly.
“I didn’t do anything heroic,” he said.
Her response was that their worthiness wasn’t his decision — his willingness to step up during a time of need in the country was something of value in itself.
Wolfe joined the Navy with a buddy he used to skip catechism with, joining the service on his own terms with a draft number that didn’t seem promising.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I wasn’t an academic,” he said. “I was the top man of the bottom half of my high school class.”
There, he worked as a morse code interceptor in Panama for five years. He was also a Cub Master, working to bring as much care to other kids’ lives during a time of social uncertainty as he had been given over his childhood.
Wolfe celebrated his 19th birthday in boot camp, where he received a homemade cake from his grandmother.
“I don’t know who you are or who you know, but nobody gets a birthday cake in boot camp,” his drill sergeant said. “I suggest you make it disappear.”
Wolfe got a lot of mileage out of that story Saturday, perhaps the first time in a while he had gotten to take it on a drive with so many other veterans.
That camaraderie was one of many benefits they enjoyed together that day as they experienced monuments and memorials that veterans see differently.
The wall of people
“Everyone said, ‘Have fun,'” Wolfe said. “I never associated the concept of fun with what I’m doing today. It’s going to be a real emotional day.”
“I know when I get to ‘The Wall,’ I’ll break down in tears,” he added.
It was Chitwood’s second time visiting “The Wall,” what vets call the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But he knew it would be different this time around. With veterans, he wouldn’t have to explain why he stares at the dark, ominous wall where nearly 60,000 names are etched over about 250 feet.
“It’s pretty sobering,” said Loren Edsall.
Some took the opportunity to find their friends and loves ones lost in the war, locating rangers who could tell them where their name was located, as the names are listed in the order they died.
Using pencils and slips of paper, they took a moment of remembrance to draw away from the death the only thing they could: a graphite impression of the deceased veteran’s etched name.
“To realize that each one of them was a human being,” Faiferlick reflected, before his thought trailed off.
“We thought it was a noble thing to do, but it was a tremendous waste of humanity,” Wolfe said.
“Fifty-five thousand wasted lives was what it was,” another Albert City vet, James Stoebe, concurred.
He recounted the times where they were told to hold back in their attacks for fear of affecting civilians, only to be called baby killers when they got home.
But for many along “The Wall,” the saving grace of travelling with so many other veterans, alongside other Honor Flights from other states that crowded the National Mall that day, was that nobody needed to say a thing as they experienced the emotions and pain of time gone by that words could only hope to articulate.
“I’m with a whole lot of people that things have the same meaning for,” Chitwood said — whether they knew one person on “The Wall,” or 22.
That’s how many Chitwood’s partner for the day, Max Folkerts, knew.
“He didn’t even want to point to the names he was looking for,” Chitwood said. “Somehow, I can relate to that.”
With the passing by of Honor Flight veterans from other states came a simple nod of understanding and respect among strangers who knew nothing about each other, save for the location their shirts and name tags indicated.
“There’s just a commonality that exists,” Chitwood said after greeting another vet from North Carolina, an interaction from which a stranger could reasonably deduce they had known each other some time.
Even though they’d hardly met before, they had an instant connection.
“Nothing else needs to be said,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
The wall of columns
It was 50 years of “a lot” of emotions that Faiferlick began to receive closure to as he took a short break under the shade provided by the 50-some columns surrounding the World War II memorial, reflecting on what he saw after the Vietnam memorial.
“For 50 years, I was wondering what was right and what was wrong,” he said. “So that helps give you closure.”
He suffered from the same feeling of not being worthy that others expressed. But a chance encounter at the USS Arizona in Hawaii with a Vietnamese couple helped him to accept the gift of the Honor Flight.
“We wouldn’t be alive without Americans,” the couple told him. They escaped Vietnam to Canada by way of France over the course of years.
Touched by the fact that they spent what little money they had to visit the United States and pay tribute to American veterans, it was only at that time — nearly 50 years since he started serving in the war — that the weight of gratitude the country has toward veterans like him became evident.
His surroundings on Saturday reminded him of his memories in the service.
An Honor Flight veteran from Kentucky reminded him of a country man he trained with who, though he appreciated the food, clothing and shelter of the Army, didn’t care to wear shoes.
The children taking their shoes off to dip their toes in the water nearby reminded him of a civilian in Vietnam, whom he gave shoes to protect his feet from oil burns as he helped service their vehicles.
For two days, he taught the 51-year-old Da Nang man who had only ever had sandals how to tie shoe laces. But days later, he realized the man never wore the shoes off base.
“If he wore them off base, the South Vietnamese would accuse him of stealing government property,” an interpreter advised him.
Only then had the contrast between two men years apart in Faiferlick’s experience come to his attention as a single story.
The wall of words
None of what had been stirred for each one that day could prepare them for what they were given in the last hour of their 18-hour day on the flight home.
Mail call, one of a soldier’s favorite times, was brought back to life.
Each veteran was handed not just a letter, but a stack of letters and cards reminding them of who they have been in their service to everyone in their lives.
If “The Wall” didn’t get them, the letters that night after a long day certainly did.
Wolfe didn’t cry as he had expected to at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but mail call got him.
“Know that you had a special place in his heart,” one said.
It was from the sister of a man Wolfe sponsored in his church. He committed suicide several years back. Wolfe had just finished telling his story before mail call was announced.
“This is overwhelming,” he said, looking at photos and dozens of letters from people in his life, reiterating how unworthy he was.
But judging by the amount of mail he got, the people closest to the cancer survivor didn’t agree.
Dave Ricker got a letter with “Sgt. Rock” on the envelope, a nickname from his time in the service only the people he served with would have known.
A simple gesture of appreciation let them know that sometimes, the real heroes in our lives are the ones who least think they are and expect nothing in return for their service.
“Here I thought walking into that airport was the highlight of my day, but this tops it,” Wolfe said through tears.
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