Honor Flight takes off Wednesday

Editors Note: Retired Daily Press Sports Editor Dennis Grall, of Escanaba, served as a Marine in Vietnam and will be covering the upcoming Honor Flight for the Daily Press

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By Dennis Grall

For the Daily Press

ESCANABA — After a dozen Honor Flights have carried Upper Peninsula veterans to Washington, D.C., it is time for Vietnam veterans to join the extremely popular trips.

Mission 13 departs Wednesday (6:30 a.m.) from Delta County Airport and returns around 8:30 p.m. The previous 12 trips were primarily for veterans of World War II and Korea, with a handful of Vietnam vets participating.

This time four World War II vets and 12 Korea vets will be on board the Sun Country jet, with the rest of the 72 seats filled by Vietnam vets. Each veteran will be accompanied by a guardian, who pays $500 to join the flight.

While the stories of all veterans are probably similar, the Vietnam vets have special memories that are fresher and shared by so many themes.

Pearl Harbor, the D-Day landing, the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima were highlights for veterans of previous flights. The Frozen Chosin and Chinese whistles grip memories of Korea vets.

But check out the menu of Vietnam memories that will be discussed frequently on this trip.

It will include the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands, Khe Sanh, Marble Mountain and China Beach.

Weapons of that war are also unique, such as the M-16, Chi-Com and AK-47 rifles, B-52 and F-4 Phantom planes and Huey helicopters.

How about some of the dangers these grunts faced on search-and-destroy patrols through rice paddies, hills and mountains, like booby traps and punji sticks, the tunnels of Cu Chi, Bouncing Bettys and Claymore mines, Agent Orange and napalm, all while dining largely on C-rations or care packages from home, which was referred to as “The World.”

We carried the PRC-25 radio on these patrols that sought out guerilla fighters, Viet Cong and NVA troops who set deadly ambushes in a variety of locations, where walking point was particularly dangerous. We wore jungle boots and carried bug spray on our helmet straps and water purification tables in our packs and were always wary of leeches and snakes.

We took on simple but dangerous four-man fire team missions or rode choppers into various locations in search of the enemy. Smaller missions could develop into much larger battles such as Operation Union, which eventually lasted five months and in the end prevented the NVA from attacking Da Nang or Chu

Lai during the Tet Offensive.

Marines, Green Berets and Rangers, soldiers, airmen, corpsmen and sailors discussed draft dodgers and war protesters, prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton, the Paris peace accords and prime R & R (rest & relaxation) destinations, and they vilified Jane Fonda and the ineptitude of the home grown Arvans, RFs (regional forces) and PFs (popular forces).

Many Vietnam vets have also dealt with PTSD issues that have been extremely disruptive to enjoying a normal life. More than 56,000 Americans died from 1963-75 and their names are listed on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, which will be perhaps the most popular stop on this tour of our nation’s capitol.

Some on this flight will have received the Purple Heart for battle wounds while others will have earned medals such as the bronze star and silver star for their heroic deeds.

The USMC Iwo Jima Memorial, perhaps the most popular military monument in the city, will not be seen on this trip as it is undergoing a massive renovation. However, these vets will see the Korea and World War II memorials, the Navy and Air Force memorials, the Pentagon memorial and will visit Arlington Cemetery and watch the memorable changing of the guard.

Paula Waeghe, an Honor Flight volunteer, told the guardians at a recent meeting “this is a day in your life that you will never forget. Make the most of it.” She also said “it is a very rewarding and life-changing experience on a flight.”

Scott Knauf, who in 2015 succeeded Barb VanRooy as coordinator of the Honor Flight, said two honor flights each year cost $180,000. The two flights planned in 2018 are already booked solid and the May 2019 flight has some openings. More than 150 veterans are on a waiting list, with World War II and Korean veterans receiving first preference on all flights.

There are 60 wheelchairs available for the veterans. The veterans and their guardians will attend a meet-and-greet at Quality Inn motel Tuesday night before boarding buses at 5 a.m. Wednesday with a police, fire and Patriot Guard escort to the airport.

The public is encouraged to greet the veterans upon their arrival home Wednesday night, about 8:30 p.m. The hangar door will open at 7 p.m. and entertainment will be provided.