Veterans ready for next Honor Flight
“You’re going to be welcomed and honored ... in a way you’ve never experienced before.”
Forty-six years after U.S. armed forces withdrew from Vietnam, many Vietnam War veterans are preparing for what is, to some, their first homecoming.
But a few still needed some pushing to sign up for the Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight opportunity, which will embark on its 19th departure next weekend with a few shy of 200 veterans on a Sun Country flight to Washington, D.C.
As the United States approaches nearly five decades passed since the Vietnam War withdrawal, 390 Vietnam veterans pass with each day — many with little impression of the gratitude Americans and others abroad have for their service.
Lyle Faiferlick of Fort Dodge was one such veteran in doubt who showed up to dinner Wednesday at the Webster County Fairgrounds, where veterans prepared for the Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight.
Faiferlick, who served in the Army from 1968 to 1969, had an experience two years ago that changed his perspective.
“Something pushed me over the edge,” in deciding to go on the Honor Flight, he explained as he tried to choke back tears.
In 2017, a trip to Hawaii brought Lyle and his wife to cross paths with an older Vietnamese couple visiting the USS Arizona.
“Why are you at the (U.S.S.) Arizona?” the veteran asked the couple.
“We wouldn’t be alive without Americans,” they replied. Holding back the tears became a more futile effort as Faiferlick got further into the story.
The couple defected from Vietnam, escaping to Quebec, Canada, by way of France over the course of three 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.
It’s a stark contrast to what Vietnam veterans returned home to, either no fanfare or an unwanted amount of negative attention with protesters calling them “baby killers”, spitting on them and throwing beer bottles at them.
“They made us take our uniforms off when I came home,” Faiferlick recalled.
And at that moment, the corn and soybean farmer realized part of his hesitance to participating in the Honor Flight experience was because Vietnam vets like him never had a homecoming welcome.
Now, he looks forward to connecting with the monuments on their trip, particularly the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, referred to as “The Wall.”
He’ll be looking for six names among more than 58,000 next Saturday — the classmates from school that left, never to be seen again. He attended two of their funerals before he left himself for Vietnam.
Others are also looking forward to The Wall, expecting memories, but not necessarily closure for the ones they never gave a goodbye to.
“I don’t need closure,” said Ron Chitwood, of Fort Dodge, a Lexington, Kansas, native who served in the Navy from 1969 to 1973. “Death is a fact of life.”
For many veterans like him, it became normal not to have that closure.
Chitwood first applied to be on a flight two years ago.
“(The trip) is going to mean a lot,” he said. “There was no fanfare when I left. The times were different.”
Deployed soldiers left individually back then. But this mission will have his back with plenty of support.
“I’m grateful to be selected,” for this flight, he added.
The last time Chitwood was in Washington was during his honeymoon. He anticipates this year’s visit, though, will have a special meaning shared with the vets who had similar experiences. This time, the people around him will understand why his eyes become fixated on the dark granite memorial for so long.
His father, a World War II veteran, declined to go on an Honor Flight.
“He didn’t want to be a burden,” Chitwood said.
Another Vietnam War veteran friend declined to take the trip, too, after 58,000 like them didn’t come home, a casualty of survivor’s guilt.
The last time Army veteran Robert Shaner, of Fort Dodge, saw The Wall was right after it was opened in 1982.
“It’s a thrill for all these vets to be together at once,” he said, where new memories will be made as old ones are brought up of the people they were torn away from too soon.
He remembers how he was treated when he travelled off base with his uniform on, a requirement when he served from 1963 to 1965. That rule changed by the time Chitwood served, they learned.
“You’re going to be welcomed and honored … in a way you’ve never experienced before,” said City Councilman Terry Moehnke, addressing the group Wednesday.
About $100,000 has been raised this year to cover the cost of the Boeing 737 to take them all directly to Dulles International Airport and back in the same day.
Chitwood doesn’t quite know yet what he’s in store for, but he knows it’ll be something to remember.
“I’ll answer that when I get back,” he said.