Tribute to the Viet Nam Veteran…..
Remembrance and Not Forgotten
By: Howard “ Howie” Pegelow
Spec 4 – US Army 1967-69
The ever ongoing conflict involves the men and women of not only our nation, but also the men and women of several free nations who came together as one to help a poor struggling nation known to the world as the “Republic of South Viet Nam,” a nation with internal strife compounded by the external pressure of being overtaken by nation to the north.
Since the early 1960s, the United States gradually increased its presence with both military and goods in assistance to their cause. During the years of conflict, over 58,000 US men and women were killed with many still listed as MIA. The many who suffered wounds numbered over 30% of the entire force. Many still feel the effects to this day by PTSD and Agent Orange.
The conflict ended 40 years ago with the withdrawal of troops and, more importantly, the return to home of the men, known as the “prisoners of war,” held captive during the many years.
During the years of conflict, our country experienced a “cry ‘n hue” in the form of protesting and condemnation by a citizen minority. As returning men and women returned from their tours, they encountered verbal and physical abuse accusation. They were spat upon, had eggs and red paint thrown at them. They were called “baby killers.” There were no welcomes. There were no parades. There was no simple thank you for serving.
The men and women in return “bottled up” their personal feelings. They warded off any admission to even being a service man or woman and serving in the dreaded conflict. They hid as a turtle in a shell never speaking of it and withdrawn. However, deep inside they were proud of serving their country and cherished the memories of lost comrades.
Across the nation, the service men and women alike have gone about their business hoping for that day that some recognition might be shown as a small remembrance to all those who served during the conflict years.
Such remembrance was produced with the construction and erection of the “Viet Nam Wall” and the “Viet Nam Monument.” Together they stand in prominence in our nation’s capital. On “The Wall” are the names of those brave men and women who came to serve and perished not in vain, but in honor as a remembrance for all to see and more importantly to not be forgotten.
A few years ago, sponsors in Wisconsin came together and attempted the first public recognition of the Viet Nam Veteran. The program was known as “LZ Lambeau.” It brought nationwide attention to those who proudly served and as a gathering of friends and comrades in recognition…and to those who were in attendance in kind and spirit…“Remembrance and Not Forgotten”.
On the 40th anniversary of the end of the conflict, a group of organizers developed and initiated a well-deserved remembrance to honor those who served during those years of conflict. A “Yellow Ribbon Old Glory Honor Flight” was called for. The Viet Nam service men and women invited to the first ever “Honor Flight,” with such flight leaving from the State of Wisconsin, traveling to Washington DC to visit and pay homage to those fellow comrades whose names are upon “The Wall.” A recognition flight well deserved for so many, many years with an offering of thank you for those who served and perished for our great nation.
“Old Glory Honor Flights” have been around for several years. Their mission was simple. They intended to offer service men and women of the “greatest generation” of the World War II era the opportunity to visit and attend ceremonies at their great monument in Washington DC. Many, many flights have been taken, serving thousands of service men and women. As the numbers of the “greatest generation” pass on, the thousands of service men and women serving during the “Korean Conflict” are being prepared and offered similar opportunities to also visit their monument.
The countless hours spent by the men and women organizers of the great endeavor can’t be thanked enough. They are remembering the service and sacrifice our nation’s service men and women proudly wear. They are honoring the countless men and women who have not returned…“Remembrance and Not Forgotten.”
The announcement to the “Yellow Ribbon Old Glory Honor Flight” was sent out in early June with a notification that only 100 Viet Nam service men and women would be chosen, at random, to attend the flight. The scheduled flight would be August 2 leaving from Oshkosh, Wisconsin and traveling to Washington DC. The flight would return later that day. The planned visits were to the “Viet Nam Wall,” The “Viet Nam Monument,” the Smithsonian’s “Museum of American History” and Arlington National Cemetery.
I completed the required application and forwarded it to the Honor Panel. A few weeks had past when I received a telephone call that I was chosen to be a member of the flight. At first I thought I was lucky to be chosen. It was a simple thought of OK, that’s good. Then the realization hit me. I wasn’t “lucky.” I was most humble and honored that I was asked to attend this recognition for not me but for the countless men and women who served our great country in a time of need and more importantly for the men and women who gave their lives for so proudly for me and our nation. I would walk strong and proud as a representative knowing of the honor and privilege of my fellow brethren. A deep feeling of “thank you” embraced me.
After the telephone call, came the “official letter of notification” with instructions followed by an issued polo shirt to be worn in recognition.
Still in amazement of such honor, I traveled with my wife (Jane) to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to the EAA Air-Venture airfield. For those whom may not know, each year in August, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) conducts a gathering and conference for its members and the public alike. Literally, tens of thousands attend this week long event. Aircraft of all kinds, including military craft, are on display and demonstrate air maneuvers. This Air-Venture has been going on for years.
At the airport, I said good-bye to my wife and entered the terminal with tens of fellow attendees all dressed with their “issued” polo-shirts wearing hats of all kinds expressing their Viet Nam service and the units they were members of. We were told that initially there were 100 veterans scheduled for this inaugural flight. That number was increased to 114 which included an oriental female adult. Also on the flight was a Laotian civilian/soldier who assisted the US Armed Forces during the many years of conflict. Besides the many vets, there were doctors and nurses to assist as needed. Also, there were assigned “care givers” and “organizers” of the organization. I should not forget the numerous men and women of from other areas and national news corps that documented the flight both during and within Washington DC.
As we were leaving the Air-Venture’s airport, members of the terminal and ground crews, the pilots and attendants of the American Airlines Jumbo 737, students/members of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and family members greeted us off.
During our flight to Washington DC, we were welcomed by our organizers and introduced to each member of their staff. We also were introduced to the various members of the press corps as well as our pilots and attendants. Each pilot and attendant described just how they came to be on this flight also describing their military experiences in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and that of the experiences of their respective families. Due to their ages, none were of Viet Nam service status, but did have loved ones who fought and died during the conflict years.
We were told that this is “Your Day.” We thanked them, but fully realized deep down that this was not “our day” but the day of recognition for all those who fought and those who died during those years of conflict. We were their representatives. We were coming home not as many, but as ONE and we sincerely thanked god for this.
Upon arrival in Washington DC, we disembarked the plane and were greeted by tens if not hundreds of well greeters. They had welcome signs. They were cheering and clapping and singing. The band played and hand shaking was the call of the day. Words are hard to come by with such a welcome by folks that stopped their busy day schedule to come to the airport to just say hello, thank you and shake our hands. None of us experienced such before. We served with honor, were discharged and went back to civilian jobs with not a welcome back or fanfare. No one cared…no one came to greet us…we felt alone, but we were proud. The spit received by some didn’t matter for we spat, sweated, fought and some died over there for all including those who spat against us.
We boarded busses for our first stop, the “Viet Nam Wall” and “Viet Nam Memorial.” Since our plane was chartered, the pilots and attendants accompanied us as well.
During the bus ride, the pilots of the plane just happened to take a bus seat behind me. They talked freely about the trip and why they were “doing this.” They mentioned that American Airlines is partnered with the “Old Glory Honor Flights” program and has been so for several years now. They said that AA will donate the plane, fuel and meals at no charge to the program. The pilots and attendants are strictly volunteer and on their “off time.” They even added there is a waiting list of pilots and attendants who simply just want to serve. They said there is no better service than to serve our country’s veterans in this worthwhile endeavor. During our bus rides, the pilots personally, sincerely and with heartfelt words thanked each and every veteran not only for service but for just being an American Hero. We, I, thanked them for their service to our country and the proud nation we all stand for.
Upon arrival at the Lincoln Memorial, we had a group photo taken. When surrounding vacationers were told of who we were and represented, warm thank you’s and cheering were received with many a handshake and “thank you for serving” expressed.
After the group photo, we all walked the short distance to the memorials. Many stopped and either took photos or had photos taken at the “Viet Nam Memorial.” Then we all proceeded to “The Wall,” each one in their own manner to stop and pay personal homage to our fallen friends and comrades. There were prayers read and heard aloud. There were silent moments of personal reflections and tracing of names for remembrances. One could hear the occasional “ why him…and not me”…Dry eyes, Hell no….not a dry eye at “The Wall.” Some think it is not a manly thing to do…cry!!! When you have lived, fought, cried and died with your “brothers”….crying is not an option. You deep down forsake all for the one moment of memory with your buddy…” Remembrance and Not Forgotten.”
After the visit, we got back on the bus and travelled to the Smithsonian Museum of American History for lunch and to see the recently opened exhibit dedicated to the Viet Name era. Again when the other visitors were informed of who, as a group, were and represented, there were many, many thank you’s and cheers.
The exhibit brought back many a personal memory. Such was that large wall “map of the country. Veteran after veteran stretched out, pointing where they were and areas they served in. Memories of the various weapons carried and used. The radios carried and the memories of the many calls for artillery and naval fire. The simple exhibits of “C” and “K Rations that were issued for field food remembering that the “C-Rations” were left over from World War II. But we ate what was on the plate or in the canteen or simply right out of the can and box. The memory of “ham and lima beans”….it’s an in country thing!!
Our next visit was to the Arlington National Cemetery and the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” We watched the “Changing of the Guard” ever so mindful and respectful. Not a sound was uttered in this most reverenced tribute.
In between the regulated half hour guard changes, we were afforded the opportunity to visit with an “off duty” guard. We had just observed his change. He spoke of the history and meaning of the site and of the Honor Guard. He talked about his personal involvement and commitment. He talked about a recent hurricane named “Sandy” and how the first time the guards were allowed to abandon their post with cameras watching over. He said not to a man did any guard ever abandon their post they hold most dear and respected. They weathered the storm with honor and dignity. They walked their post 24/7 with no exception…period!!
Back on the bus after a full day, we relaxed until we got back to the airport and the plane. Again, we were met by well-wishers and many a “thank you for service.” On the plane, new pilots and attendants greeted us. During the flight they each talked about their respective military experiences or that of their families.
As mentioned earlier, there was a young lady of oriental descent who wanted to speak to us. She did accompany us from the beginning, but sort of kept to herself during the various visiting sites. She started by telling a story. She told of a time when a small child of age 5 was in a village in South Viet Nam near the border of North Viet Nam. She said that this child and the other villagers were ordered to be killed by troops of North Viet Nam. She said that soldiers of South Viet Nam and American troops came into the village for a rescue. During the fighting, she was taken and held by a South Viet Nam officer. The child was taken to a nearby orphanage away from the village. While the child’s stayed, an American officer worked so diligently to accept and adopt the child, bringing her back to the United States to raise with his family. She closed that story saying that given that the child’s village was completely destroyed with many lives lost, the child was surely would have died, as well. She said that she was that child and was grateful to be alive, raised in the United States and so proud to call that American officer…”Dad”. A heartfelt water-eyed ovation sprang about the plane. We were so happy and proud of this young lady.
During the trip back to Wisconsin, we had a brief meal and were informed that a tradition was to return to us….”Mail Call.” Now we all remember “Mail Call” from our service time. Whether it was in the U.S. or overseas, it didn’t matter. It was “Mail Call”!!! It meant cards and letters from our families back home. Also the newspapers and magazines either we or someone else subscribed to…just a time to sit back and reflect on something else of a sort of happy place and moment.
Well, some of us vets who knew of other veterans of the WWII and Korean era that have been on Honor Flights have been told that school children write cards and letters in some sort of generic form and they’re handed out to the veterans during “Mail Call.” So I guess I and the others were expecting just that. We were very grateful that school kids of any age would take the time to sit down and express their thoughts. We welcomed these letters and cards whole-heartily.
The Honor Flight organizers had luggage bags they pulled from the overhead bins. They removed large envelopes as addressed to each and every vet, which they called out….just as in “Mail Call”…handing the envelopes to each.
As we all opened our envelopes, we found letters from elected officials, airline officials and Honor Flight organizers. The letters thanked us for our service and expressed gratitude for our attendance on this trip and the sites we visited. There were also many letters and cards within this envelop individually addressed to each named veteran. Again, we believed that this was the special way of the school children to address us as individuals. That was not the case.
As I, personally, started to read letter after letter and card after card, I questioned and really didn’t realize just how these cards and letters were individually written and mailed to my attention. These cards and letters were from my family. My children, grandchildren, bother, sister, aunts, cousins and other relatives and friends. All 37 cards and letters were from those that I love and care for.
In reading each and every card and letter, I came to see the love and respect of each. Crying and well tons of Kleenex being passed about the plane as each and every veteran received cards and letters from their loved ones just as mine. The “Care Givers” walked about the plane’s aisle gently comforting each of us. For now I see why they are the “Care Givers”…an arm embrace and a shoulder to lean on.
Words can’t describe the joy and meaning of this. We all have relatives and friends that we know and love. We express various degrees of love and respect. But to receive a letter or card that actually tears at one’s very soul. Words just can’t be expressed. Each and every card and letter I will keep and read and re-read over and over. I couldn’t ask for more.
Upon arrival, we were informed by our pilot that the local fire department would have blasts of water in welcoming us back. Fire trucks lined the runway and blasted our arrival. We could see many people lining the runways on both sides. We believed that they were there to see the air show and other activities. We waited for the organizers and press corps to disembark the plane and then started off ourselves.
As we exited the plane, tens of hundreds and thousands of people were in fact on and about the runways. They weren’t there to see the air show. They were there to welcome us back. Yes, welcome us back. There were signs and banners with flag waving and shouts and cheers all for the Viet Nam Veterans….all for just being a veteran. As we walked through the line, well-wishers screamed “Welcome Back,” “God Bless you,” “Thank you for Serving.” It was so hard to hold back our gratefulness…our thankfulness…our gratitude. At the end of the line we were handed sealed boxes containing tokens of appreciation along with cards and letters from school children who just wanted to express a simple but innocent “Thank you for Serving.”
We were re-united with our loved ones. For me, it was my wife, Jane, and daughter, Ann, who was there along with her husband, Craig, and grandkids Jake and Emily. We came to the seating area for a music tribute by Tony Orlando and Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band.
Tony Orlando sincerely thanked not only the Viet Nam veterans, but all veterans as well. He talked of the time 40 years ago when a personal friend of his, Bob Hope, called him and asked him to come and preform for the returning POWs of Viet Nam. He said there was no hesitation whatsoever and jumped at the opportunity to welcome these brave soldiers. In fact he wrote a song especially for them and preformed it for the first time for them. The song is “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” He said he has been singing this song for veterans, all veterans since then and won’t stop until the day he dies.
Gary Sinise, as many know, played “Lt. Dan” in the movie known as “Forest Gump.” He also is the lead role in CSI-New York. He reported that he is so very dedicated to our nation’s veterans and is there for them in whatever he can do. His Lt. Dan Band performed with dedication to the Viet Nam vets and to all vets whoever they are.
I mention two individuals so dear to the hearts of all Viet Nam Veterans and for that matter all veterans alike. The first individual is Gary Wetzel. The second is Patrick Brady. You may ask who these two are. Why are they so important? Well, both Gary and Patrick are Viet Nam veterans. And for all Americans, both Gary and Patrick are MEDAL OF HONOR recipients who received their medals for gallantry beyond the call of duty while serving in the Republic of South Viet Nam. Gary came to the airport early in to morning to see his brethren off, and Patrick came to the airport to welcome his brethren back.