They’re called Honor Flights, and rightfully so. The purpose of an Honor Flight is to transport veterans from across the nation to visit the memorials built in their honor and to pay respect to them for their sacrifice and service.
For many of the veterans on the 17th Bushy Creek Area Honor Flight that transported 13 Union County Vietnam-era veterans to Washington, D.C., this was the official “welcome home” they never received.
John Priest, 75, of rural Afton, said the flight was quite different than the one he remembers coming home from war.
“When we were coming home from Vietnam in the late 1960s, as we got deprocessed at Travis Air Force Base in California, they suggested we not wear our military uniforms on civilian airplanes,” said Priest.
The recommendation made to Priest and his fellow service men was made out of concern for their own safety, as, at the time, and to this day, the Vietnam War is considered one of the most protested wars in American history.
“It took a long time for people to actually issue a thank you to Vietnam vets,” said Priest.
Denny Abel, 69, of Creston said the Honor Flight experience was “awesome” and “very tearful.”
“You know, I had never really been welcomed home,” said Abel. “Neither had the Korean veterans. And, this was our welcome home after 48 years for me. I had tears.”
Priest and Abel, who both served in the United States Army and were stationed in Vietnam, said the fanfare and the details of the Honor Flight experience were things they would never forget.
For Priest, the arrival at Dulles International Airport was overwhelming.
“They told us when we arrived at Dulles that there might be a few spectators there to congratulate us – some number, maybe 50,” said Priest.
When Priest and the 160 other veterans aboard the plane unboarded, they were greeted with music and hundreds of people lining the entire walk from the terminal to their buses.
“It could have been 1,000. It was huge,” said Priest. “They were sincere folks. All of the veterans had tears in their eyes from that greeting.”
After boarding three chartered buses, the veterans convoyed through the Nation’s Capital for a 24-hour tour of the monuments built in their honor and in memory of those they served with. And, it was quite the VIP experience.
“We had police [escorts] all day. Those buses didn’t stop at a red light. The patrol cars let us through everywhere. They let us drive in places where the public doesn’t get to drive,” said Priest.
Abel said during the whirlwind tour, the group visited Arlington National Cemetery where they visited the Tomb of the Unknown soldier and witnessed changing of the guard, toured the Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Korean War, Vietnam Veterans, U.S. Marine Corp (Iwo Jima), Air Force memorials, cruised the National Mall, where they saw the Capitol Building, Smithsonian and eventually the White House and Pentagon.
Of all the places, it was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that struck a chord with the Union County veterans.
Priest, who flew reconnaissance air crafts in Vietnam, recalled getting shot at, but more so, the feeling of missing those who did not make it home.
“I have two fellow pilots from my unit in Vietnam whose names are on that wall,” said Priest. “Through the years, I’ve never had bad experiences because of the war, but I do think of those two individuals – that they didn’t get to live the rest of their lives.”
Abel, who drove a tank while stationed in Vietnam said he enjoyed the camaraderie of the the Honor Flight experience.
“It’s been more than two weeks since we returned and there are people still talking about it. It was awesome,” said Abel.
Priest said the organizers planned the “perfect trip.” Some of the details brought back the good memories of his time in the service, such as getting paid and receiving mail.
“On the way home on the airplane, [the organizers] enacted various military things that happened, like, payday. On payday, everybody lines up and gets paid,” said Priest.
What Priest described was the veterans on board experienced a final payday, where each of them received a Vietnam commemorative coin and a Pay Day candy bar.
“It was simple, but it simulated payday back in the military, so we all thought about that,” said Priest.
Then, the mail arrived.
“Mail call was a big thing in the military,” said Priest.
Priest said the veterans received letters of support from children from various schools. However, then they were handed letters that were written to them by their family and friends.
“They were pretty emotional letters. Welcome home. Glad you made it,” said Priest.
But, it was a letter from his son that moved Priest beyond words.
“My daughter wasn’t born yet, but my son was 6 weeks old when I went to Vietnam,” said Priest.
Priest, who spent his son’s first year of life deployed in Vietnam, said the theme of his son’s letter was written from the viewpoint of a child pleading for his father to come home.
“He made it sound like he was telling me in the letter, ‘Please, come home dad,’” said Priest. His letter got your attention.”
Abel said each detail of the 24-hour trip was emotional. But, the most unexpected was the welcome back they received upon landing in Fort Dodge.
“As we were deplaning, each person was introduced to the crowd and it was a quarter to 11 at night,” said Abel.
As each veteran stepped off the plane, a speaker announced their name, branch of service and where they reside. As they walked to the terminal, the veterans were greeted by a high school band, friends, family and current service men and women.
“It was something,” said Abel. “Everybody was talking about the trip all the way back. Still, to this day, it’s been two and a half weeks and they are still talking about it.”
Both Priest and Abel recommended the trip to other veterans.
“There might be some people that would have trouble going there because of their injuries or mental health situation concerning the war. But truthfully, it could be a healing event for those that are troubled by it too,” said Priest.
Abel said many veterans fail to apply because they don’t consider themselves worthy of the opportunity.
“You don’t have to have served in a war, you just have to be a veteran. If you put on the uniform, you are a veteran. You put on the uniform and you did what uncle Sam asked you to do,” said Abel.