Last week, 66 Central Valley veterans came together in Washington DC and received the warmest welcome of the service career. John Nelson of Clovis served in the Army in Vietnam, “It’s an honor, having people clap for us on the trip. When we got back from Vietnam, people would spit on us and call us names. The war wasn’t right but it wasn’t our choice, we just served our country. It wasn’t until years later when a trainer on a job who also served in Vietnam, wrapped his arms around me and said ‘welcome home’. It was the first time anyone ever did that.” The Central Valley Honor Flight (CVHF) gave these veterans a proper homecoming that they deserved by giving them an opportunity to be honored, welcomed, and thanked in our nation's capital. The reception these veterans received everywhere we want was incredibly moving and touched them deeply. Lines of tourists and government employees stopped whatever they were doing to clap for and thank our valley veterans. Considering that the fact that their valiant efforts are the one that secured our freedom as a country, it was an appropriate reception.
On this 16th flight, the 66 veterans were from nine different counties and their ages ranged from 66 to 97. 22 of these were WWII veterans, who were celebrated at the WWII Memorial for the 73rd anniversary of VEday along with other WWII veterans from other flights. A few hundred people attended the ceremony to be amongst true American heroes and thank them for their service.
Patriotism was in abundance on this trip and it ranged from the students and tourists that welcomed the veterans to the crew made up of volunteers. The CVHF crew worked hard to create a life-changing trip for these veterans that included impressive tours of war memorials, meetings with Congressmen and guest speakers, and special programs. It was a treat for all who had the privilege to be there. From the staff, the flight crew, the airport greeters, the bus drivers, the police escorts, and many more, they do all that they can to treat these special visitors like royalty. Many of these ‘crew’ members have been serving the Honor Flights across the country for years, usually supporting 150 flights a year. One of the flight’s long time helpers, Bill Goodreau summed it up, “You are faithful to America and in return the Honor Flight will stay faithful to you.” CVHR leader, Al Perry, made sure that all felt included, despite their experiences in their time of services, “We honor you whether you were in combat or not. You are honored no matter how you served but because you served.”
The veterans experience ranged from serving in the the Battle of the Bulge, to building the Burma Road in China, and to being interned as a Japanese and then joining MIS. It was an honor to be amongst the WWII veterans and extremely touching to be with the Korea and Vietnam veterans as they were honored and welcomed over the course of the trip.
Local businessman, John Bankson, who served in the Korean War was there with his guardian, John Sundgren, Chairman of the Castle Air Museum Foundation. Bankson served in Korea by patrolling the front lines, as well as educating the men in that area about survival and life skills, specifically teaching them about communism and democracy. “A lot of them didn’t know the difference between the two and it was important to understand both sides of the fight.” Ernest (Ernie) Conner, prior Merced resident (now Turlock), was there with his patriotic daughter, Christine Conner Vieira. Other Merced County veterans on the flight were Dick Bell and Al Ramos who both served in the Air Force during Vietnam. Chic Brooks of Fresno served in the Merchant Marines during WWII whose ship was sunk by a kamikaze attack. After an hour of wading in water, he was rescued. Chic has owned and operated many restaurants in the valley such as Country Waffles, Happy Steak, and Perko’s. Joseph Matsuo of Fresno was displaced from his home by executive order 9066 and once he graduated high school, he became an interpreter with other Japanese-Americans in MIS. At one point in the war, he oversaw prisoners that we had captured. He sent a letter to the parents of one of the prisoners letting them know that their child would be returning home safely at the end of the war.
Vietnam veterans, who received the worst homecoming of all had a moving experience at their memorial. The veterans, including many guardians who also served in Vietnam, gathered together in front of the memorial wall to join in a ‘hoo-rah’ yell led group leaders, Ken Kemmerer and Goodreau, who both served themselves. The yell bounced off of the wall and echoed across the memorial and back out to veterans in a moment that gave us chills. Goodreau captured the moment perfectly when he said, “the men and women on the wall heard it and are echoing back to you.” This was a real tearjerker for the men who lost close friends and family alongside of them in Vietnam. Men searched for their brethren on the wall and while some were successful in seeing loved ones names, others did not. To those that could not find the names, the flight staff assured them they would find them on the next trip and send them a picture, proving that they always go above and beyond to serve their veterans. Men found some closure in this experience. Vietnam vet, Steven Loya, said “I’m healing, this brought closure. I found my brother, my friend, who was my best friend in high school and it was a miracle that I found him.” Rudy Molina, fellow Vietnam veteran, agreed that “this brought some closure, some peace.”
Each flight costs approximately $200,000 and is supported entirely by donations. Ernie Conner says, “It an extremely moving thing that people think enough about veterans to pay the way for many who couldn’t afford this on their own. There’s been a sea change of attitude that began after Desert Storm where people are starting to revisit history. I think many people realized they made a mistake when we were coming home from Vietnam and it’s refreshing to have so many young people come up and thank you for your service. This trip gave many drafted men the opportunity to gain closure and be honored. It means more to us veterans than one could ever know.”
Finally, this trip stood as a symbol for peace and unity. Fitzalbert Marius, who served in WWII was originally placed in Army specialized training until a misunderstanding about his race placed him in the 725th Medical Sanitary Company, which was a segregated unit with some of the toughest jobs. “As far as this trip is concerned, my main priority is that America will have an opportunity to see, particularly younger people, the importance of showing unity, and that veterans represent America, that the basic fundamental principles that this country was founded on shows that we should all be working together as one in the face of dealing with all of these superficial things, and recognize that we’re all one people for the purpose of being productive together for our communities. If we do that, all the other stuff will go down the drain.”
This trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity for those veterans that need peace and closure, or for those that want to serve and give back. Not all can be veterans, but all can be patriots.
Overview of the schedule