Eastern Iowa Honor Flight participants fill the seats of an airplane that took them to and from the Nation’s Capitol on Sept. 20, 2023, for a tour of the area’s war memorials.

Eastern Iowa Honor Flight participants fill the seats of an airplane that took them to and from the Nation’s Capitol on Sept. 20, 2023, for a tour of the area’s war memorials. (Facebook)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Quiet fell over the airplane cabin during a prayer as nearly 90 veterans prepared for takeoff to the nation’s capital Wednesday for the 48th Eastern Iowa Honor Flight.

Some veterans had ventured to Washington, D.C., to see the war memorials before. For some, this would be their first time seeing the memorials — a physical tribute to battles fought, lives lost and sacrifices made to guard the nation’s freedom. But they prayed like it would be their last time.

When some of the veterans served decades ago, most in the Vietnam War, some had been treated as traitors by a citizenry that had grown frustrated with an increasingly futile and brutal war.

On the Honor Flight, some found an opportunity to reflect on what was lost and to heal their spiritual wounds, seeing their service with fresh eyes through the lens of those who view the veterans as heroes.

‘One of the lucky ones’

A surprise welcome at Reagan National Airport humbled the veterans when they touched down in the capital, a preview of the red carpet treatment they’d get for the hours to come.

The fire department splashed the plane with a water cannon. Those waiting to catch flights took out their phones to record the occasion while hooping and hollering to greet the veterans.

“From one veteran to another, thank you for your service,” Gregory Young, 60, an Army veteran from Maryland said when he shook hands with one veteran.

“No one really back in the day honored them — the different mindset back then when they were serving, especially Vietnam,” said his girlfriend, Peaches Slacken, 54, an Army veteran whose family is from Jamaica and who said she was proud to serve as a first-generation American. “And it’s an honor. We walk in their shoes.”

At the World War II Memorial, Perry Benore, a Marine in Vietnam, stood in front of the 4,048 gold stars — each representing 100 Americans who lost their lives in service.

“I fulfilled my duties as a Marine, and I’m lucky to be back,” Benore said. “Some people didn’t make it back. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Eastern Iowa Honor Flight participants line up for a flight that took them to the Nation’s Capitol on Sept. 20, 2023, for a tour of the area’s war memorials.

Eastern Iowa Honor Flight participants line up for a flight that took them to the Nation’s Capitol on Sept. 20, 2023, for a tour of the area’s war memorials. ()

Inscribed at the base of the memorial are words from Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “Here we mark the price of freedom.” Most will never truly know that price, one veteran commented.

‘He was so young’

The Washington Monument was the backdrop to the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon’s performance for the veterans, reminding some of when their military service began.

Marvin Hoyt, 73, of Cedar Rapids, said it was confusing to be so young when he served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

“I was 18 when I went in, 19 when I went to Vietnam,” Hoyt said. “I didn’t know what to expect and had never encountered anything like it. It’s hard to put into words how it changes you when you’re so young.”

It’s therapeutic to come back to the memorial now, when there’s more respect given veterans who served in the war, Hoyt said, than past trips he’d taken with his children and grandchildren.

“When you get a certain age, you have to face a lot of different realities,” Hoyt said. “My memories of the war aren’t nearly as bad as an awful lot of other guys, but it had a real effect on me throughout my life.”

Hoyt was searching for one name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Robert Conley was killed by a sniper while providing support for Hoyt’s unit.

With some assistance, Hoyt located Conley’s name, lingering a few moments to honor his late comrade. Sometimes it’s better not knowing what happened to those you served with after leaving the military, he said, because there’s never a guarantee they survived.

Jack Lawson, 77, a Navy veteran from Fort Madison, also had a name to look for on the wall — Thomas Joe Dawson Jr. of Santa Clara County, Calif., who died when he was 20.

“The Vietnam Wall was very emotional, especially if you know someone on it,” Lawson said.

“Todd,” as Lawson knew him, died July 29, 1967, when fire broke out on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin. A rocket accidentally fired and struck a parked aircraft’s external fuel tank, triggering a fire and explosions that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

John McCain, who went on to become a U.S. senator from Arizona and a presidential candidate, was among the survivors.

Todd “was so young,” Lawson said. “... He’s one of those friends you had in Navy training that you always remember.”

‘Pleasure to serve’

At Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., the Changing of the Guard ceremony outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier captivated the veterans, some holding their hats over their chests as they watched.

The honor guards’ shoes clacked across the concrete as they marched 21 steps down the black mat and another 21 back up, and repeating until a new guard was in place for the hour.

Eastern Iowa Honor Flight participants pose outside a memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, 2023.

Eastern Iowa Honor Flight participants pose outside a memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, 2023. (Facebook)

Deb Gensley, a Navy veteran from Belle Plaine, was the only woman on the Honor Flight. The Military Women’s Memorial, located at Arlington’s entrance, was closed for construction, but staff presented with a certificate for her service.

Gensley said it was an honor to represent the millions of women who have served in the military and to know that there’s patriotism — that there are people who don’t take their freedom for granted.

“It’s an honor to serve, and it’s a pleasure to serve,” Gensley said. “I thank God for the opportunity to serve my country honorably.”

Bob Cuykendall, 86, of Iowa City, said his parents worked on the Manhattan project during World War II, the secret project that developed the world’s first nuclear weapons. His mom was a medical doctor and his dad was a physicist working on the project.

When he was 5 years old in 1942, the family moved from Washington, D.C., to Los Alamos, N.M., living in barracks that were built from scratch. It was a unique situation, he said, living on the top-secret site in his formative years. It was highly guarded, fenced in and patrolled constantly, so his parents gave him freedom to wander.

“I remember everything about Los Alamos,” Cuykendall said.

Cuykendall earned his bachelor’s in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was in graduate school when he received a draft notice. He signed up as a Naval officer, “a smart decision” that shaped his career.

The GI Bill paid his tuition while he earned a Ph.D. in mathematical physics at the University of California-Los Angeles. He worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system, as a senior computer scientist on the flight control system on the Galileo project. He retired as a University of Iowa professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“It turned out to have a lot of benefits later in life,” Cuykendall said.

Welcome home

When the veterans completed their mission and returned home to The Eastern Iowa Airport, hundreds of friends, relatives and community members gave them a proper welcome home.

The Cedar Valley Big Band’s jazz and rock arrangements rang through the airport as the veterans marched down the aisle formed by supporters on each side. The group started with “Sentimental Journey” and ended with its arrangement of “Armed Forces Salute,” which features the anthems for all the military branches.

The trip is free for veterans, with around 100 Iowa organizations, businesses and community members supporting the flight.

Jenny Bruns, 41, of Zwingle, was among those waiting to greet her father, Ron Vorwald, an Army veteran from Worthington. Wearing an American flag headband, she held red, white and blue signs that read, “We know it’s 54 years late but welcome home, Ron!” and another with the message, “Welcome home, soldier. May your sacrifice never be forgotten.”

“We wanted to give my dad the welcoming home he should have gotten years ago when he got home from Vietnam,” Bruns said. “Knowing they were treated so poorly when coming home from there, I just couldn’t believe they were so disrespectful.”

Samantha Karels, 28, of Cedar Rapids, was eager to greet her father, too, carrying a sign that said, “Some people never meet their hero. I was raised by mine. Welcome home.”

“It’s unfortunate that they didn’t get the welcome home they deserved back then, but at least they’re getting some recognition now,” Karels said. “It’s better late than never ... Those soldiers didn’t deserve that when they came home. They weren’t the ones making the decisions, they were just there acting out on orders that the government had given them.”

Lawson said that being out of military service for about 50 years, it’s natural to move on from the experience. But with the day’s events behind him and “good doughnuts” to satisfy his sweet tooth, he smiled and said, “It makes you feel like everybody here’s a hero.”

“When I was young and I first got out of the service, I never had anybody thank you for your service — not anything like this,” Lawson said. “It made you really appreciate being in the service and proud. Yet it really made you sad to see all of the names of ones that didn’t come home — thousands of names.”

(c)2023 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

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