OSHKOSH – When Patrick Sullivan returned to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC on Friday, he walked parallel to the sprawling monument, stopping at the panel labeled 59 W.
There, Sullivan took a step he said he was not ready to take five years ago when he and his family visited the wall on the 50th anniversary of his brother’s death: He took tracing paper, placed it over his brother’s name and lightly rubbed his pencil over the inscription, creating his very own copy of the etching of his brother’s name.
Sullivan, a native of Pulaski, is a US Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War from 1964-1970. While Sullivan was stationed in Germany, his brother di lui Mikal was serving in Vietnam and died there on June 6, 1968.
“(It was) a draining feeling,” Sullivan told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, describing rubbing Mikal’s name on the wall. “I still miss my brother today. He was a great brother. He was honest, and he was there to serve his country di lui. ”
Sullivan was one of 98 veterans who flew to Washington, DC at no cost as part of the eighth Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight.
This special mission, originating from the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture convention, was geared specifically towards honoring Vietnam-era veterans. It was made possible by Old Glory Honor Flight, a nonprofit based in Appleton, in conjunction with EAA and American Airlines.
The Vietnam War was one of the longest – and most controversial – wars in American history, with US involvement lasting from 1964 to 1973. As such, those who served in this war have long felt they did not receive the same appreciation as those who served in previous wars.
Gary Streich of Winneconne, who crafted briefing documents out of a multinational headquarters in Germany, recalled being called a “baby killer” and being spit on.
“That was coming from Germany out East,” Streich said. “Imagine (how it was for) guys coming from Vietnam in California – they got it a lot worse.”
Leaders from Old Glory Honor Flight, EAA and American Airlines said it’s tales like these that make it especially important to host these missions.
“It’s important for our veterans to feel recognized… especially our Vietnam veterans – they never got that welcome home, they were treated really poorly when they came back home,” Old Glory Honor Flight Executive Director Diane MacDonald said. “After serving their country honorably, they were told to take off their uniforms, they were met with protesters, they were spit at, they were called names, so this (honor flight) hopefully replaces some of those very negative experiences with one of love and appreciation from our community, and it’s important that they experience that. “
After urging from his friends, Streich signed up for the Honor Flight, but his trip was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, EAA’s first Honor Flight since 2019, he finally got his big welcome home – one when he arrived in Washington, and an even bigger celebration when the vets returned to the EAA grounds.
“I am glad that I can now do this,” Streich said. “It’s very special to do this.”
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‘They deserve all the things we can give’: a full day fit for 98 heroes
Each aspect of Friday’s trip, from the plane they flew on to the sites they visited, was planned with the Vietnam-era veterans in mind.
The veterans and their guardians – either family members or volunteers who were assigned 1-2 veterans to escort throughout the day – flew in style on the Flagship Valor Airbus A321 alongside an entirely volunteer American Airlines crew.
“American Airlines unveiled Flagship Valor in March as a flying tribute to those who have received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor in action, but it was also designed to recognize all who served and sacrificed,” said Randy Stillinger, manager of Military and Veterans Initiatives at American Airlines, adding the light blue silhouettes under the windows represent major conflicts since the award was created.
The first stop in Washington, DC was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The veterans, donned in matching gray honor flight polos, and their guardians slowly walked the route of remembrance, many stopping to find names of loved ones, some leaving behind mementos.
“There’s 58,000-plus names on that wall, but it’s not just names for them: it’s faces, it’s kind of a way to recognize those veterans, to remember them,” MacDonald said. “So, it’s a very meaningful and emotional spot for them. That being said, it’s also very healing because it gives them the opportunity to pay their respects, to say ‘thank you’ to those veterans. ”
That’s exactly how Oshkosh’s Jeff Freund, a combat engineer who built and maintained a stretch of road in Vietnam, including combing it for mines, described visiting the Wall on Friday’s trip: “healing.”
He recalled an instance where he learned via the press that some of his comrades were overrun and lacked the firepower to defend themselves. Until Friday, he didn’t know the fate of one of those fellow veterans until he saw his name di lui etched in stone.
“I saw all of those names,” Freund said. “I had a really good life; I’m 74. They didn’t get to experience life. ”
While at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Old Glory veterans marveled at the Washington Monument in the distance and later took a group photo at the Lincoln Memorial. They also toured the Price of Freedom and Star-Spangled Banner exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the former providing a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War.
They also witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Ceremony and shared their war experiences at the US Marine Corps War Memorial and Air Force Memorial.
Under the three spires of the Air Force Memorial, Neenah resident Ron Rasmussen recalled his time in Vietnam collecting visual reconnaissance and targeting the enemy from the sky. He is now preparing to retire from commercial aviation by October.
“I’ve never considered myself a hero, I’m a survivor,” he said. “I survived two tours of Vietnam and survived 31 years at an airline.”
As organizers knew, the day wouldn’t be complete without one final surprise before returning to Oshkosh. On the flight back from Washington, Old Glory organizers passed out thick envelopes filled with cards and letters from family, friends and the Old Glory Honor Flight Crew.
Old Glory calls this Honor Flight tradition “mail call,” as it mimics when veterans would get letters from home while in the service.
Rod Solem, a US Navy veteran whose home port was in California and who also spent time at Yankee Station of the coast of Vietnam, wiped his eyes as he looked through old photographs, correspondence he sent and received during his time in the war and more .
“Somebody worked very hard on it – I think it was my wife,” he said.
As Solem opened his mail, his guardian, Amy Winkler of Krakow, leaned over to take pictures. Winkler explained each of her veterans di lei – this is her sixth honor flight di lei – gets a Shutterfly photo book to commemorate the day.
“(The veterans) deserve all the things we can give. We’re here to make their day as memorable as we can, ”she said, later adding,“ It impacts your life as a guardian. As much as it impacts the vets, it changes our lives too. ”
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A ‘Welcome Home’ characteristic of EAA
Josh McFaul, who served in the Army in Afghanistan, told veterans on a bus ride between destinations that he was touched when 12 Vietnam veterans greeted him and his comrades at 2 am when they returned to the United States in 2002.
“I asked them why they were there to greet us, and they said, ‘because we’re not going to let happen to you guys what happened to us,'” McFaul recalled.
On Friday, the Vietnam-era veterans on the Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight received a long-awaited ‘welcome home,’ and it was unlike any other.
Thousands gathered around the Flagship Valor Airbus A321, when it arrived at Wittman Regional Airport at the end of the afternoon airshow. Several fire trucks provided by Pierce Manufacturing gave a water cannon salute, creating a rainbow over the plane as it nosed in to Boeing Plaza. The veterans received thunderous applause as they deplaned and were escorted to a stage – which was built into the cargo hold of a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, a large Air Force transport. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh football team, who were also there early in the morning to help with boarding, escorted the veterans to the stage for the finale of their day.
“You only get that at EAA,” MacDonald said.
Present at the welcome home ceremony were Medal of Honor Recipients Army Major General Patrick Brady and US Marine Lance Corporal Kyle Carpenter, who is the youngest Medal of Honor recipient and flew on Friday’s flight. Carpenter gave a heartwarming speech to conclude the ceremony.
“It’s extremely important for us to remember as a nation, as a country, those that have given so much… and so to be around a group of veterans who not just paid that heavy price but truly understand the price of freedom and helping others around the world in distant lands is very powerful, ”Carpenter told USA TODAY NETWORK Wisconsin. “I’m just so grateful for this opportunity (to go on the Honor Flight), it’s been one of the greatest honors of my life.”
Such “welcome home” celebrations for those on the Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight have become an integral part of EAA AirVenture, Rick Larsen, EAA’s vice president of communities and member programming, said.
“(It’s) being able to do something that allows our members and guests to participate in that winds up being an incredibly memorable and emotional type of situation, and that to me is exactly the kind of stuff that AirVenture is really all about,” Larsen said. “It’s become a very core part of what we do, and it’s core for our attendees to be a part of it.”
And as the crowd gathered to pay homage to the 98 veterans on Friday, Appleton’s Dick Rollmann, who patrolled the East-West German border during the Vietnam War, said he hopes the public remembers one very important lesson:
“There is no freedom, you make freedom. Without us we wouldn’t be here, ”he said.
Applications are open for DC missions for World War II-era, Korean War-era, and Vietnam War-era veterans at oldgloryhonorflight.org.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member. She is based at the Post Crescent in Appleton. To contact her, email email@example.com or call 920-993-7108.
Contact Brad Star at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @byBradStar.