Friday, June 21, 2024

Respect is love in action. Honored veterans: Local heroes journey to Vietnam Memorial

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It was during a regular evening meeting of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) chapter 238 when four friends, their hearts filled with anticipation and hope, submitted their names for the DFW Honor Flight opportunity. Honor Flight DFW is dedicated to honoring veterans’ sacrifices by providing them with an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to visit iconic memorials representing their service. The veterans, who thought being selected would be a long shot, were overjoyed when each of the four received notification of their selection to the program for the May 18-19 Honor Flight.

Veteran Army soldiers Don Caldwell, Gary Keel, Shores Turner and Veteran Navy Sailor Ken Horton arrived at Love Field for their 11 a.m. flight to Baltimore, Maryland. They understood they would be honored for their military service to this country, but what they experienced would be a lifetime gift.

Honor Flight #55 was full. Every seat on the flight was occupied by a Vietnam veteran clad in ball caps emblazoned with the words ‘Purple Heart' and blue golf shirts marked with the Honor Flight logo — a symbol of unity and shared experiences. The soldiers, sailors and airmen sitting shoulder-to-shoulder would become acquaintances and friends. The plane landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and taxied slowly through a magnificent 'water salute' delivered by two mammoth fire tanker trucks, a testament to the support and respect of the community. The ceremony was just the beginning of a journey filled with camaraderie and compassion. 

Once inside the terminal, Caldwell, Keel, Turner, Horton and the other Honor Flight members were surprised to hear the loud ringing of a bell by a man in a velvet tri-cornered hat, breeches, and buckled shoes — the town crier. "Hear ye! Hear ye!" he said, "Vietnam veterans coming through!"

Hundreds responded with cheers and applause, reaching out to shake the veterans' hands, saying, "thank you" and "welcome home," and stepping aside as the men walked by. "Another wet-eye time," Horton said. It was a new and beautiful homecoming for the Vietnam veterans — 50 years later. "(It was) the welcome home that we did not get when we came home from Vietnam," said Turner.  

Each soldier was assigned a guardian to accompany them throughout the journey, supported by a team of volunteer medical professionals. These well-trained, compassionate individuals guided and assisted their charge in any way they could. Turner and Keel voiced they were most surprised by “the guardians caring for us so much." The love, care and respect shown by the guardians who refused to let their assigned veteran pay for anything they wanted or needed profoundly impacted the veterans. "(The guardians said) it would take away from their experience of giving honor and grace to the veterans." Keel said, voice cracking with emotion.

Keel, Turner, Caldwell and Horton also visited The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, guarded by volunteer sentinels 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They do this because the Unknown Soldiers buried in the tomb deserve the very best the sentinels have to offer. The sky was overcast, and in utter silence, the assembled watched the awe-inspiring display of respect. The only sound was the clicking of the sentinels’ metal heel taps on the concrete as they marched, rifles in arms.

One evening, after dinner in Washington, D.C., in yet another display of national pride and appreciation, each veteran was presented with a challenge coin by their guardian to commemorate the Honor Flight event.

Another reception awaited the men upon their arrival at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, where a sea of people parted to welcome and honor the Vietnam veterans.

The four honorees were most anxious to visit the Vietnam Wall to pay tribute to the over 56,000 military men and women who died during the Vietnam war. "I knew some of the names. It's an incredible feeling to see the names of men you served with who died in combat," Keel, who fought in special forces, said. Turner brought memorial photos and note cards which he set at the base of the Vietnam Wall in memory of five men from his company who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Caldwell's guardian held an umbrella in the drizzle and dried the name on the Wall with a cloth. Rain mixing with tears, Caldwell captured the etching or “rubbing” of a soldier's name, classified as “MIA” — the brother of a friend. "I got a 'rub' for my sister-in-law; her cousin was KIA,’" said Horton.

At Arlington National Cemetery, Keel thoughtfully placed a quarter on the gravestone of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier. Murphy was short and had the nickname “Two-bits.”

Dale Carnegie said, "Respect is love in action." The demonstration of respect and admiration bequeathed on these grateful servicemen from Granbury had a profound effect that didn't end with Washington, D.C. On their flight back to Dallas Love Field, an Honor Flight volunteer told the plane full of veterans, "In the military, you had 'mail call.' We're going to have a 'mail call.'" Bags loaded with hundreds of cards and letters were opened and distributed. The cards and letters were written by hand to each veteran by neighbors, school children, clergy, family members, friends, co-workers and more. The honorees were stunned to tears by the respect they received. 

Another surprise celebration awaited the veterans at the Dallas airport. As the men came through the terminal, they were greeted by friends and loved ones cheering, applauding and crying — a fitting “welcome home” for the nation's best — our veterans.

Since its inception, Honor Flight DFW has flown over 2,000 veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to Washington, D.C. The trip encompasses visits to significant memorials, including those dedicated to WWII, Korean and Vietnam veterans, and landmarks like the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima), Navy Memorial, Air Force Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.

For more information about the Honor Flight program visit Honor Flight DFW | Honoring Dallas Fort Worth Veterans