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‘50 years late, but 50 years went away’

Thirteen Vietnam-era veterans honored on ‘sobering’ tour of the memorials erected in their honor

Back row from left Billy Stalder, Joe Wolf, Wally Miller, Bob Williams, Jerry Carson, Bob Crawford, and Mike Wolfe, front row from left, Zelda Stalder, Loren Edsall, Jon Foley, Gail Gehrke, Dale Lowenburg, and Kirk McCann and David Ricker, not pictured, left Friday to attend the 2019 Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Back row from left Billy Stalder, Joe Wolf, Wally Miller, Bob Williams, Jerry Carson, Bob Crawford, and Mike Wolfe, front row from left, Zelda Stalder, Loren Edsall, Jon Foley, Gail Gehrke, Dale Lowenburg, and Kirk McCann and David Ricker, not pictured, left Friday to attend the 2019 Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

When American soldiers returned home at the end of World War II, they were greeted as heroes. As their planes touched down and ships reached the country’s shores, parades and celebrations awaited them.

The homecoming for Vietnam veterans, however, was very different. In the late-1960s to mid-’70s, soldiers returned home to find a country divided. There were no victory rallies or grand gestures welcoming them home. Instead, many Vietnam soldiers returned home to a society they felt no longer cared. But after attending the 19th annual Honor Flight, some area veterans have started the healing process.

“For the first time, I’m proud to say I’m a Vietnam veteran,” said Joe Wolf of Creston.

For Wolf, who was drafted into the United States Army Dec. 6, 1967, the arrival to Washington D.C. marked 50 years to the date of his discharge. The Honor Flight experienced reminded him of that bittersweet day.

Homecoming

After he was discharged Sept. 21, 1969, Wolf said, as he stripped off his jungle fatigues in Seattle, Washington that day, all he could think about was getting home, where he would meet his daughter Melanie – then 5 1/2 months old – for the very first time. However, as he made his way through airports, his “military greens” –  which were his only change of clothes – made him a marked man for harassment and slurs.

“We heard about stuff like that while I was in ‘Nam, that things were pretty ugly back here,” said Wolf. “It was lots of hurt.”

Loren Edsell of Creston had a similar experience. Both men said they were spit at and shouted at in airports upon their return.

“It was just insulting and very discouraging,” said Edsell. “They couldn’t get it through their head we weren’t over there because we wanted to be. We were only doing what we were told to.”

Edsell and his brother Lyle Edsell of Fontanelle were drafted into the United States army together in 1966. Edsell – a heavy equipment operator in the U.S. Army at the time – said he hopes all veterans take the opportunity to participate in the Honor Flight.

“For years I never would admit I was in Vietnam,” said Edsell. “I guess I just wanted to forget it. You’d never know what kind of reaction you’d get if you said you’d been in Vietnam.​​​​​​“

Honor Flight

According to its website, the mission of the Honor Flight Network is to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.

At 2 p.m. Friday, 13 Union County Veterans departed Creston on a Southern Iowa Transit bus for Fort Dodge, where the crew would be joining more than 150 other service members on the Honor Flight.

As they left Creston, Edsell said he was moved by the support of the community that came out to greet them, particularly the students of Mayflower Heritage Christian School, who lined a side walk waving flags and hands.

“It made you feel good,” said Edsell.

As the veterans departed Fort Dodge Municipal Airport at nearly 6 a.m. Saturday morning, they were met with dozens of supporters, who were there to see them off. Little did they know what awaited them in D.C.

Welcome home

Jerry Carson of Creston, who served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1967 with the United States Navy as an airplane mechanic, said the trip to Washington wasn’t a big deal, but the crowd that greeted him was.

“The little kids, the old people, the bands. They really put on a show for us,” said Carson. “That was probably the most overwhelming part of it.”

Edsell estimated between 700 and 800 people were at Dulles International Airport to greet the service members as they deplaned. Wolf believed it to be in the thousands – children, adults, scouts, local athletes, bands and violinists, and more.

The crowd chanted and cheered, reached out their hands for high-fives and handshakes, and held up signs as the veterans passed through. Through tears, the veterans read messages of support: “Welcome home Vietnam Veterans.” “We love you.” “We’re proud of you.”

“It just went on and on,” Wolf said. “It was the first time I felt welcomed. It was so deep. So, so deep. You’ve never seen 150, 60 old men balling. But I’ll tell you what, it was a very emotional. Extremely. We were all babies.”

Touring

After boarding three chartered buses, the veterans convoyed through the Nation’s Capital for a tour of the monuments built in their honor and in memory of those they served with. And, it was quite the VIP experience.

On the Honor Flight tour, the veterans were provided breakfast, lunch and dinner, medical staff and police escorts for the duration of their day. The group visited the Arlington National Cemetery where they saw the Tomb of the Unknown soldier and witnessed the changing of the guard; toured the Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Korean War, Vietnam Veterans, U.S. Marine Corp (Iwo Jima), and Air Force memorials. By bus, they explored the National Mall, where they saw the Capitol Building, Smithsonian and eventually the White House and Pentagon.

For Wolf, the more than 400,000 white crosses that mark the graves spanning Arlington National Cemetery were a highlight of his trip. He said the Vietnam Memorial took his breath away.

“It was hard to breathe,” he said.

As Wolf stood before the wall reading the nearly 58,000 names, he couldn’t help but think about all of the men and women who died after the war as a result of suicide and residual physical health issues, such as those caused by exposure to agent orange.

As he took in the visual imagery of the cemetery and wall, he said it was beautiful, but the heart-stopping. Upon seeing the wall, it reminded him of all the wars survivors, who are still “living” in Vietnam, and other wars, as they carry the weight of post traumatic stress and other ailments. Wolf said he learned on the tour of Arlington that an average of 28 new soldiers are buried in Arlington daily, six days a week.

“There’s a lot of people buried there,” Wolf said. “That’s the ultimate sacrifice.”

“It’s a sobering thing to see and to think about,” Edsell said of the Vietnam Memorial. “”It just makes you think. I think part of what it does is brings up memories ... for some of us anyway. And, you kind of feel lucky that you’re not one of the names on the wall, to tell you the truth.”

Edsell said he was moved by the WWII Memorial. He described the 24 bronze carved panels depicting the experience of WWII veterans, the granite columns and wreaths representing each U.S. state and territory, the fountains and 4,048 gold stars that represent the more than 400,000 Americans that gave their life for that victory.

“That was really outstanding. It was the whole concept of the thing,” Edsell said.

Carson said he went to the Vietnam Memorial in search of one name. David Underhill. Underhill worked aboard Carson’s same ship, but had died after a helicopter crashed on the flight deck he was working on. When Carson found Underhill’s name, he said it was “sobering.”

“He had been with the squadron for, like, two months. Hadn’t really had the chance to get to know him. He was a nice guy. Twenty years old.”

Understanding and acceptance: a shared experience

Carson, Edsell and Wolf said the trip was therapeutic for them.

“It was something I haven’t thought about or talked about for years and it just kind of relieved the pressure or something ... It’s not things you talk about with your family,” said Edsell. “People can’t understand what you’ve been through unless they’ve gone through it. When you’re talking to a Vietnam vet, like me, they know what you went through. They understand how you feel and what makes you feel the way you do. It’s really hard to describe. I saw some things ... that were very gruesome and very upsetting that no matter how long I live, I’ll never forget it.”

Carson said, any veteran who is able to attend the next Honor Flight, should.

“I would say if they’re able, they are fools not to go,” he said. “I was one of those that was on the fence and I got talked in to it. I’m really happy I did.”

Wolf said, whether the veterans know each other or not, the bond is strong and supportive among the entire group.

“No one’s making fun of anybody. We all said, ‘That was tough. That was enlightening. That was so good. It felt good.’ I can’t speak for every body ... it was unbelievable relating the experiences.”

Carson, Edsell and Wolf were thankful for the Bushy Creek Honor Flight organizers, donors, fundraising event planners and area coordinator Tom Hawks.

“It was 50 years late, but 50 years went away,” Wolf said. “It broke some internal stuff loose. There was nothing forgettable about that. It was uplifting. It was enriching.”

Wolf said his hope for himself and his fellow veterans is to live long enough to change their lives and go back in time to “find that 20-year-old boy, when life was light and care free.”

“It would be really nice to find him again,” Wolf said.

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