Last year I had the great honor to serve as ‘Guardian’ for my Dad’s Badger Honor Flight to Washington D.C. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War and volunteered to serve in the Army in a field artillery unit most notably around the city of Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen province where he earned a Bronze Star with ‘V’ for Valor.
I quickly learned that when veterans go on an Honor Flight they have one ‘Guardian’ who is assigned to accompany them and offer any assistance throughout a long day of touring memorials and walking around D.C. I took this duty seriously and loaded up a backpack filled with extras like gloves and hats in case it got cold, snacks, rain ponchos, ibuprofen, battery chargers in case someone’s phone needed a boost, and other odds and ends. My cousin Jason was also the ‘Guardian’ for his dad and we were dressed in blue jackets while the real heroes wore red. Check out the attached photos to see what a great turnout we had.
For those of you who are not familiar with the history of the Vietnam War don’t worry, I’m not going to write a book about it here. There are many, many history books on the subject. What I am more interested in sharing with you are the real people - the everyday heroes - who walk among us and who did their duty only to be spit on, mocked, and ridiculed by immature, ungrateful, self-absorbed ‘protesters’ when they returned from a war zone.
This is how my Dad described his return from Vietnam:
“They flew me into Fort Lewis in Washington state. This was no big deal since it was a military base. When I got off the plane I was still wearing my fatigues and looked a little rough having just returned from the hot jungles of Southeast Asia. The first order of business was to get cleaned up, get a haircut and a shave, and enjoy a steak dinner which wasn’t all that great because the people on the West Coast just don’t know the first thing about cooking a good steak. I finished up my discharge paperwork, put on a clean uniform and they sent me home to Wisconsin which included a flight to O’Hare. It was there that we encountered packs of civilian protesters who were screaming and spitting at us and calling us terrible names. It was because of that experience that, to this very day, I hate O’Hare and the city of Chicago and when I got home I took off that uniform and swore to never wear it again.”
It sickens me that anyone could treat another human being like the protesters of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s treated my father and other heroes returning from war. When my Dad told me that story I was enraged. The only thing I could find to say was, “As much as that experience sucked for you guys the one good thing that came out of it was that our nation learned a valuable lesson: never, ever, treat our soldiers like that again.”
never, ever, treat our soldiers like that again.”
These men who did their duty in the Vietnam War are not just heroes for their actions in that conflict. They are also heroes for teaching us all about the importance of maintaining honor and integrity and persevering through the emotional abuse and bullying by their own fellow citizens. I truly hate that these men had to go through that experience but I am even more grateful to them for having done so because now my generation has the benefit of their wisdom and we will continue to pass it on to those who follow.
When our Badger Honor Flight arrived in Washington, D.C. the plane was guided to the terminal by grounds crewmen waving American flags and a firetruck offering a water cannon salute. When the veterans entered the terminal they were greeted by HUNDREDS of cheering, clapping, hugging, and handshaking civilians welcoming each and every one of these heroes to the nation’s capital and thanking them for their service. As I tagged along behind my Dad he kept looking back at me and commenting on how he couldn’t believe this many people would show up like this. It was truly amazing and, as Dad said,
“If there are this many patriotic Americans in ‘the swamp’ of Washington, D.C. then maybe there is hope for our country after all!”
But it gets even better…
We made our way to the buses that would transport us around the city to visit the memorials that our nation erected to honor men like this. It was there that we learned the Park Police were going to be escorting us throughout the day to make sure we could slide through the gridlock traffic and stay on schedule. As I said to my Dad upon learning that these Veterans were being treated like ambassadors,
“These cops are probably excited to serve real heroes for once instead of all the politicians who come through here.”
It was a thing of beauty to see all the traffic part like the Red Sea to make room for our Veterans.
There are a couple of photos I have attached that I want to call out specifically due to the deep meaning that is embedded within them.
The photo of the Wall from the Vietnam War Memorial was taken after Dad left a toy car near the panel where the names of some of those he served with are engraved. Three men were killed in one night during the Tet Offensive of 1968. I was privileged to hear this story told by the men who lived through it while I was attending one of their reunions in Texas. As I recall the story, it was April of 1968 and Dad’s artillery battery was rushed by North Vietnamese Army units in the darkest of night. The men pushed the raiders back but several casualties resulted including the three fallen soldiers Ed Zager, Thomas Dazey, and Dennis Reed.
Another casualty of the Vietnam War was also very heavy on the minds of these veterans as they visited this memorial. Dad’s best friend, Danny Helbing, passed away just days before the Honor Flight. He was originally scheduled to be on this trip but his health took a turn for the worse and he passed away from cancer that doctors now say was a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in the jungles of Vietnam. I pray for his family every day. God bless you all.
Another photo that I wanted to provide some context to is that which shows the young woman creating the etching of names from the wall. She was born in Vietnam and her family brought her to America to escape the communists there after our politicians surrendered. We spoke with her for several minutes and there wasn’t a dry eye as she told her story and repeatedly thanked our heroes for their service. As she told us,
I volunteer at this Wall to serve those who served me and helped pave the road to my freedom.
Isn’t it remarkable how some of the most patriotic Americans in our nation are those who had to escape from tyranny?
Happy Veteran’s Day! God bless you all for wearing the uniform and helping to free people all over the world.