Emotions flow at first ever Honor Flight for Vietnam veterans
By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: August 9, 2013
WASHINGTON — They came to visit their buddies, men who are forever 19 or 20 or 21.
Jim Zitzelsberger came to see Keith McEnany. Dick Young found Kevin Ferguson.
George Gilles looked for Thomas Cole and found him. Jim Schertz visited Douglas O'Neill.
The faces reflected in the shiny black granite have grown gray and wrinkled. Their memories of their fallen comrades remain fresh.
"Him and I were close buddies in Vietnam," Gilles, 64, said of Cole.
"He was my closest friend in Vietnam. He was engaged to be married. He was only 30 days away from leaving the war," Gilles, a Marine from Oshkosh, said of his friend killed by a rocket in 1968. "I never made friends in Vietnam after that."
Gilles and 113 other Vietnam veterans traveled to Washington, D.C., August 2, 2013 on the first ever Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight for Wisconsin veterans. The group left EAA AirVenture in the morning and returned after the air show.
Appleton-based Old Glory Honor Flight, whose motto is "It's never too late to say thank you," has organized numerous one-day trips to Washington for World War II veterans to visit memorials. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of hostilities in Vietnam, organizers arranged a one time-only trip for Vietnam veterans.
Out of 525 applications, 114 were randomly chosen for the Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight, which included all military branches, mostly combat veterans.
Zitzelsberger, 65, of Oshkosh, was waiting to board a transport leaving the U.S. for Vietnam when he heard his friend McEnany had been killed after only nine days in the country. Zitzelsberger wrote a self-published novel and collection of short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, which he left at the Wall Friday. McEnany is a character in one of his stories.
"It was a 22-hour flight from Gulfport, Miss., to Da Nang, and I was thinking of Keith's demise the whole way," said Zitzelsberger, a Navy Seabee.
Young, 65, of Kewaunee, had never visited the Wall before. He had written down the names of four buddies with their locations on the memorial so he could trace their names, including that of Ferguson, a machine gunner killed in an ambush.
"I guess the thing that makes it so hard is you're a survivor," a tearful Young said.
Honor Flight organizers handed out pencils and tracing paper so the veterans could bring home mementos.
They walked through the path along the giant black V in the bright sunshine pausing to reflect, to trace names, to take pictures. The Vietnam veterans know it could have been their name on the Wall.
Schertz knows. A few days after he switched to a different helicopter as a crew chief, his original chopper left on a mission and vanished with the four-man crew. Schertz traced their names. He snapped photos. He knelt and quietly touched the etched letters of O'Neill and his other three comrades. Next to their names were crosses signifying they're MIA.
"You notice they're still missing. That shouldn't be," said Schertz, 62, a retired Milwaukee firefighter who served in Vietnam in 1972.
Everywhere the veterans went, they were treated as heroes. When the American Airlines flight departed Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh Friday morning, three P-51 Mustang fighters escorted the plane.
Medal of Honor recipient and Vietnam veteran Gary Wetzel of Oak Creek greeted the veterans before they left. He told them a visit to the Wall would be emotional.
"A lot of you guys are going down for the first time, and it's going to be a kick in the butt. We all know guys on the wall," Wetzel said. "You see your shadow in the granite, and it's like you're walking with your buddies."
On the flight back, the veterans opened packages of letters and cards sent by their families. Flight attendants handed out tissues to veterans dabbing tears from their eyes as they read cards and letters from children and grandchildren.
And upon their return to a heroes' welcome at AirVenture, they looked out the plane windows to see thousands of people waving and cheering and holding "Welcome Home" and "Thank you for your service" signs.
"Oh my God, this is for us? Oh wow!" said Bob Williams, 68, of Milwaukee, who served in the Army's 101st Airborne Division and earned a Purple Heart.
They stayed for a concert by actor Gary Sinise's Lt. Dan Band and Tony Orlando, who sang "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" to the veterans and their families.
Jim Milbrath, 64, of Burlington shook so many hands he lost count.
"We waited all these years for this. How can you not be moved? How can you not be touched?" Milbrath said.