Too sick to make Honor Flight, Sioux Center veteran gets local ceremony Sunday
By MASON DOCKTER | Sioux City Journal | Published: July 29, 2019
SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Iowa (Tribune News Service) — Eugene "Oots" Altena was scheduled to go on a Midwest Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in May, but his declining health prevented him from going.
He was rescheduled for another Honor Flight trip for September, but his health has deteriorated further and he won't be able to make that flight. So Midwest Honor Flight found a less-strenuous way to honor his military legacy, escorting him from Royale Meadows Care Center in Sioux Center, Iowa, to Siouxland Freedom Park in South Sioux City Sunday afternoon.
The 78-year-old Altena is suffering his fourth bout of cancer, and the prognosis is terminal.
Officials, including U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Sioux Center Mayor David Krahling, issued statements and proclamations in his honor.
Altena, by his own account, was touched by the ceremony. He said the whole experience was better than an Honor Flight.
"Oh man, I think I cried for three miles," he said. "It's awesome, I didn't expect all this."
Members of the Sioux Center Police Department, Sioux Center Fire Department, Iowa State Patrol, South Sioux City Police Department, South Sioux City Fire Department, local American Legion posts and Thunder on the Missouri riders all took part in the ceremony.
Altena's son, Robert, came all the way from Missouri for the occasion, though his wife, Becky, was unable to make it.
"He's just a great example of how to be a man and to be a good father," Robert Altena said of his father.
Altena laid a wreath at the replica Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall at Freedom Park and was presented a flag and given a 21-gun salute, as a crowd of roughly 100 stood by. It was his first visit to the replica wall.
Chris Van Beek, a medical coordinator with Midwest Honor Flight and an organizer of the ceremony, said Altena deserved a special event to honor his military service.
"We talked about it and the family actually requested if we could do something, if we could come to his room and do something special for him," she said. "We decided to take it a step further."
A veteran of the Army who served from 1963 to 1965, Altena was not deployed to Vietnam, but knew many who were.
"I was close to Vietnam, I worked in the battalion, I was a squad leader," Altena said. "We'd train people for Vietnam. 90 percent of that company went there.
"I lost a lot of good friends in Vietnam," he said.
Despite his prognosis and the morose memories of the Vietnam era, Altena maintains a sense of humor. The crowd burst out laughing when he told the story of how his Dutch grandmother inadvertently gave him the nickname "Oots."
"She couldn't say 'Eugene,'" Altena said. "She said, 'Oots.' I think she meant 'Oops.'"