ED doctor reflects on Honor Flight trip for Veterans' Day

Nov 11, 2019

What would you do if your job description strongly discouraged you from showering, for 60 days in a row? Suppose your position happened to include that you'd risk your life if you brushed your teeth, for eight weeks at a time? Or, imagine that, if you put on some deodorant, you would be probably end up getting killed?

Do these demands seem ridiculous?

If you were a cavalry soldier in Vietnam, in 1969, these sacrifices, to stay alive for your 13 month tour of duty, were sacrifices you were glad to make! Any odors that did not originate in the jungle would act as a giant arrow, pointing the enemy right at you.

Ed V. was a sergeant in the cavalry. For 13 months, he was assigned to search-and-destroy missions. He and his nine or ten men were sent into the jungle for two months at a time. Although their assignment was to find the enemy and eliminate them, their ultimate goal was to stay alive.

Ed and his men not only had to avoid enemy rifle shots, they had to avoid land mines, malaria, home-made mortar rounds, leeches, a variety of booby traps, dysentery, and misplaced American fire. (That was how Ed's best friend from high school died: “friendly fire.” The only time Ed wept was when he made a pencil-rubbing of his friend's name, where it is carved in the granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.)

Although I have read many books on Vietnam, and watched several documentaries, these condensed and edited second-hand reports in no way compare to learning from someone who survived the jungles and mountains themselves.

I learned about this on a recent Honor Flight trip this past September 5-7, 2019.

The Honor Flight Network was established as a way to escort veterans of WWII, without any cost to the veterans, to visit the national World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. The first flights began in 2005, a year after the memorial opened. The idea quickly spread to many United States cities and states, and thousands of World War II (WWII) veterans have been fortunate enough to attend one of the flights. However, as the WWII veterans have gradually grown too infirm to travel, or have died, many of the Honor Flight chapters (called “hubs”) have regarded their mission as over, and have disbanded.

Fortunately, the Rocky Mountain Honor Flight (RMHF), based out of the front range of Colorado, continues to fly veterans to Washington, DC, to visit the memorials. On this most recent trip, I traveled with eight Korea War veterans and 13 Vietnam War veterans.

Although I am on the “medical” team, I participate in every aspect of the tour, just as all the guardians do. “Guardians” is the title for we, the volunteers, who assist the vets on each trip. We help everyone off the bus, we push wheelchairs (for those vets who are not comfortable walking longer distances), or we comfort those grieving for the losses which the war extracted from the warriors. Over two days, our tour bus visits multiple locations beyond the war memorials: we visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials, the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) and Air Force Memorial, as well as the museums at the Navy Yard. We also attend the Changing of the Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. (The guards are not allowed to speak or salute. To show respect for the vets, they intentionally scuff the metal taps on their shoes. The path they patrol has distinct lines of rust, marking the thousands of times they have proffered their distinct salute.)

You and I can speak about war and death and hardships, but, hopefully, we will never experience trudging through jungle mud, keenly watching where every footstep is placed, never knowing if the end of our life is a blink away.

The Korean and Vietnam War veterans realize that their sacrifices did not save the world. Nonetheless, they did make sacrifices, and they did this because they felt it was the right thing to do. They did this for us.

Should you ever find yourself in Washington, DC, visiting memorials, please be certain to visit the Vietnam, Korean and WWII Memorials. They are shockingly different, and amazing, in their own rights.

And, may I make a suggestion? Should you, when visiting the memorials, encounter a vet, ask permission to take their picture. Make sure the vet is in the foreground, and the memorial in the background. Let them know how proud you are of them.

A special thanks to Bill Stangl, Vice President of Physician Services and CCH Administration, whose support and confidence, allowed me travel as the Honor Flight physician on this most recent sojourn to Washington, DC.