COLUMBIA — Mid-Missourians donned their Fourth of July reds, whites and blues a few days early to give Korean War and Vietnam War veterans a warm welcome home late Wednesday.
Seventy-three veterans on Central Missouri Honor Flight No. 40 left Columbia at 2:20 a.m. Wednesday. They arrived in Washington, D.C., about lunchtime and visited several memorials and museums, including the National World War II, the Korean War Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans memorials and Arlington National Cemetery before flying back to St. Louis in the evening and taking buses back to Columbia.
Travel costs were covered by the Central Missouri Honor Flight, part of a national nonprofit that began sending veterans to the D.C. memorials in 2005.
Around 11:20 p.m., 343 motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the veterans on the final leg of their bus ride from Kingdom City to Columbia. Twenty minutes later, under the glow of streetlights, the veterans were met by cheering family members, friends and supporters waving American flags and homemade signs.
An enormous flag hung from a firetruck ladder; three firefighters had spent the previous half-hour making sure it draped just right.
Employees from Veterans United sang the national anthem. Boys dressed in white uniforms from the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps performed a flag ceremony. The group had attended several other Honor Flight ceremonies, but this one was particularly special: Their commanding officer, Lt. James Denning, was on the flight, and they wanted to give him something to remember.
After the two buses parked in front of the Courtyard Columbia, all 73 veterans had their names announced. Exhausted but exhilarated, they greeted their waiting loved ones in an atmosphere of community and support.
For some veterans, this was nothing like the homecoming they experienced decades ago.
Larry Robinson landed in California before returning to Missouri after his service in Vietnam. Family members waiting for Robinson to arrive recalled that he had no idea how many in the U.S. felt about the war and was surprised when people threw trash at him.
But after Robinson came back from the Honor Flight, his two sons, their wives and his five grandchildren were there to congratulate and honor him. It was the first positive welcome home related to the war he'd received, family members said.
Others in the crowd had been on previous flights and talked about their healing power.
Gerald Ulrich went on Honor Flight No. 30. He came to cheer on the passengers of Honor Flight No. 40 because of the amazing experience he had. “It lifted the burden off my shoulder,” he said.
He said he gave up his dream of becoming a preacher to serve in the Vietnam War and returned to the U.S. discouraged and bitter.
“I was home less than 12 hours and was called a ‘baby killer,’” Ulrich said. He didn’t believe anyone would listen to a preacher with his experiences. It took many years, friends and the Honor Flight for him to realize he had the potential to lead a church. Now, he ministers through the Universal Life Church.
Also in the waiting crowd was Dennis Hoffman, who began volunteering with Honor Flight after a previous group took a photograph of his late father, a World War II veteran, to the war memorial and honored him there. Hoffman was grateful for the gesture and happy that his father could attend the Honor Flight in spirit, and that prompted him to help other veterans have the fulfilling experience.
Gloria Maupin was the only female veteran on Honor Flight No. 40. She was a dental technician in the Korean War. Sitting in a wheelchair after the day’s ordeal, she described the experience as beautiful and mind-boggling.
Vietnam veteran Sam Jenkins said he was touched by people clapping at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as he walked off the plane in D.C. While at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he traced two names: one of a high school classmate and another of a friend who served with him on the same ship. When Jenkins reached Kingdom City on Wednesday evening, several of his friends in the Eldon Noble Eagles joined the motorcycle escort from Kingdom City.
To give honor to these veterans takes a community effort. On the financial end, it takes $300 to send one veteran to D.C. for the day. Central Honor Flight has several fundraisers, but community groups and individuals also donate to the cause, said Shelley Becker, community relations coordinator of the Central Missouri Honor Flight.
Becker said several assistants, called guardians, volunteer to help guide the veterans on their trip and take care of medical and other care-related issues. It's recommended but not required that the guardians have a military or medical background and be physically strong. They pay their own way.
But as for the welcome home, groups outside of the Honor Flight volunteer their time. The Patriot Guard Riders started providing an escort for Honor Flight No. 2 to surprise the grandfather of one of their members, a World War II veteran, said Reed Hickam, a senior ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders in Missouri. Group members enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to continue the tradition for every Honor Flight after that, he said.
Meanwhile, Veterans United employees lend their voices, the Sea Cadet Corps provide a regal military salute and hundreds attend to show respect for the veterans' sacrifices.
As Dale Parrish, a Vietnam veteran who went on Honor Flight No. 40, said, “This is something we deserved 40 years ago.”
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.