War Memorial Visits Offer Reflection, Closure for Vets on Honor Flight Journey

  • Leland Thomas, 87, receives handshakes from children at the Korean War Memorial on Nov. 8, 2018. Thomas served in both Korea and Vietnam as a combat cameraman, and conducted interviews with prisoners of war. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
    Leland Thomas, 87, receives handshakes from children at the Korean War Memorial on Nov. 8, 2018. Thomas served in both Korea and Vietnam as a combat cameraman, and conducted interviews with prisoners of war. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
  • Mervin Olguin wheels Michael Owen, both Vietnam veterans, near the wall of names. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
    Mervin Olguin wheels Michael Owen, both Vietnam veterans, near the wall of names. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
  • Scott Griffith, 69, looks on in the direction of the Vietnam War memorial before the tour concludes. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
    Scott Griffith, 69, looks on in the direction of the Vietnam War memorial before the tour concludes. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)

"Welcome home."

It’s what nearly 40 veterans heard from passersby Thursday at the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., followed by unprompted applause from a school group and handshakes all around.

The Kansas-based vets had made the trek from Wichita through the Honor Flight Network, an organization that brings veterans to D.C. to visit war memorials, Arlington Cemetery and, on occasion, the 9/11 memorial or armed forces museums in the area.

For some of the veterans, reflecting on their service wasn't necessarily what they wanted. But they knew it was time.

"I think this is going to be quite an emotional experience," said Bud Vansickle of Wichita.

The memorials were the first stop of the day for the vets, whose service spanned World War II, Korea and Vietnam, with some having served in more than one conflict. Some had never been to the East Coast. The Kansas group is a mere glimpse into the thousands of trips Honor Flights conducts annually.

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Vansickle, 88, admitted he was reluctant to take the trip, knowing he'd be flooded with memories of the friends he'd made during his service.

He enlisted in the Army shortly after the Korean War began. He was on orders to deploy to Korea when he was rerouted to Germany. The private first class served as maintainer on artillery batteries and small arms for three years before leaving the service.

"This is a tribute to all the men who served in all the wars," Vansickle said as his daughter rolled his wheelchair near the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. He was on his way to visit the Korean War Memorial for the first time.

Leland Thomas of Little Rock, Arkansas, is also a Korean War vet.

"Dad is soon to be 87, and I didn't want him to miss this," said Debbie Rice, his eldest daughter.

Thomas served in both Korea and Vietnam as a combat cameraman. He originally enlisted in the Army for five years but finished out his career in the Air Force as a senior master sergeant, for a combined 27 years of service. He took still photographs on the ground in Korea for two years, and graduated to motion picture in Vietnam in 1961. His films were taken on the ground, as well as out of aircraft during reconnaissance missions.

"His films went to the Pentagon for decisions to be made, then the news reels, and now it's seen on the History Channel," Rice said.

Thomas clearly remembers conducting several trips to the Philippines to interview prisoners of war, such as Navy Lt. Cmdr. Everett Alvarez Jr., who was the first American pilot shot down and captured during the Vietnam War and held captive for more than eight years.

He traveled with the POWs back to Travis Air Force Base, California, for their first welcome home ceremonies.

Then, during the fall of Saigon, he was on the second-to-last C-130 Hercules aircraft that left and filmed the very last aircraft ferrying South Vietnamese women and children during the evacuation.

"Everything was worn out. Everybody was worn out," Thomas said. He had been on the move for days, flying to the Philippines and back to film the monumental mission, dubbed Operation Frequent Wind, which signaled the end of the war.

On Thursday, Thomas was eagerly greeted by men and women of all ages as he saw the memorials from his wheelchair.

Their Moment

But other vets wanted to spend their Honor Flight memorial tour away from the spotlight, a moment of personal reflection.

Mervin Olguin wheeled Michael Owen, both Vietnam veterans, near the wall of names in search of one: Baker.

"I only remember one guy. He was my bunkie, and he got killed," Olguin said. "But I can't remember his first name."

"There's so many Bakers," Owen added.

Olguin, 76, served two tours as a machine gunner in CH-53A helicopters first in 1966 and again in 1971. He put in 20 years with the Marine Corps.

Owen, 68, was a Green Beret with 5th Special Forces Group, deploying multiple times to the central part of Vietnam in the late 1960s into the early 1970s. He retired as a staff sergeant after six years in the service.

"This Marine here" is what made him sign up for the Honor Flight, Owen said, referring to Olguin. They met in a bar years ago and now reside in the Wichita area.

Staring at the wall, Owen was mostly quiet but chirped out, "I feel good."

Many of the veterans appreciated the opportunity to see the memorials.

"You don't always get to the opportunity to see the memorials, but this came up," said Scott Griffith of Bentley, Kansas. "Lot of history back here."

He served as an Army medical record specialist with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1969. "To put it bluntly, I tagged bodies, both dead and alive," he said, before going to Fort Gordon, Georgia, to oversee aeromedical evacuations. He ended his service as an E-5 after three years.

Serving in the military "was inevitable," Griffith said. "At that time in your life when you become 18 … I was still in the draft [timeframe] … and I went ahead and enlisted. Ended up in Vietnam anyway. I wish the United States hadn't done away with the draft. I think everybody ought to spend two years in the service."

The trip to the memorials also made the vets think about what current and future generations serving in conflicts like Afghanistan may endure.

For Owen, "This is a little bit of closure."

But "pretty soon," he added, "this is going to be Afghanistan, Iraq."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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