During the latter years of the 1960s and the first five years of the 1970s, returning veterans from Vietnam never experienced a war homecoming or acknowledgment upon their arrival to the United States.
Instead, people scorned them, ignored them or even spat on them. It’s been more than 40 years in the making to heal old wounds, renew friendships with others who served at that time and especially to a receive a hero’s welcome they never received.
Three days together in the nation’s capital brought about 50 veterans together and when they stepped off the airplane at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport shortly after noon Sunday and began their procession to the main lobby, many were surprises to see hundreds of people waving miniature flags and holding up signs of “Welcome Home” or “Thank you for your service.”
“God, that was amazing,” said Andy Anderson, as he described the support. “It was way better than Baltimore, and that was tear-jerking.”
Anderson and the other veterans were the latest men and women who took an Honor Flight Nevada trip to the nation’s capital. In addition to Vietnam War veterans, three served in World War II and one veterans fought in the Korean War. They all received a hero’s welcome when they deplaned at the Baltimore Washington International airport Friday afternoon on the first leg of their trip to see the memorials and monuments built in honor of the military men and women in Washington, D.C.
When they left the ramp from the plane, scores of young soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines assigned to the area’s military installations greeted them, each young service member wanting to shake an older vet’s hand. A similar scene played out in Reno, but this time with friends, family and total strangers.
“I expected to see my family and friends, but I didn’t expect 600 people to show up,” said Army veteran Larry Dunn, a former Carson City resident who lives in Reno. “All these people here was overwhelming.”
Each veteran like those who have been on previous Honor Flights listened to welcoming remarks from a representative of the airport authority and then received homemade quilts sewn in their honor.
“This quilt is phenomenal,” Dunn said with the patriotic-themed quilt draped around him and his wife by his side.
Dayton resident Gerry Townsend is a Marine veteran. When he arrived in Reno and was walking with his fellow Honor Flight veterans, he slowed down in the line as a woman told him to stand near her. Townsend looked up and saw his son, Erik, reach out with open arms, pull his father to him and give him a bear hug.
“I was surprised to see him,” Townsend said. “We embraced, we both hugged. It was a special homecoming. He came down Saturday and left when the ceremony was over.”
Erik Townsend, who spent 23 years in the Air Force and now lives in Mountain Home, Idaho, drove to Reno on Saturday.
“I had no idea he was coming,” said Gerry Townsend, who moved to Dayton two years ago.
Ken Pierson, a Reno barber who made new friendships in less than 72 hours, was speechless at first.
“I was blown away, thrilled to see this,” Pierson said of the cheering and signs. “We have so much thanks for this organization. This (the Honor Flight) has been very helpful. We’re all brothers.”
The trip over Veterans Day and the homecoming is something Gardnerville resident Alex Francis said never imagined.
“I was totally amazed,” he said after passing the supporters. “They didn’t offer any of this when I left Vietnam service.”
Dean Schultz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the airport authority, said he was proud to welcome back the veterans from their special weekend in Washington, D.C. Since Honor Flight Nevada began its program in 2012, Schultz said more than 700 veterans have participated.
“They go to Washington to see memorials built in their honor, and I am honored to welcome you home,” said Schutlz, who recognized veterans, volunteers and friends who helped with the homecoming festivities.
John Yuspa, executive director and founder of Honor Flight Nevada, said the Vietnam experience for veterans of that era began three years ago. He said several benefactors have designated their donations be used solely for Vietnam vets, and in April, CEO John Farahi of the Atlantis Casino and Resort in Reno donated $25,000 toward this trip.
During the year, Yuspa said Honor Flight Nevada conducts many fundraisers to help with the expenses of each trip to the East Coast. This Honor Flight with Vietnam veterans was just as special as the previous ones that flew veterans from that era. For some, though, they wrestled with the thought of going on the flight.
One such veteran was Mike Vonada of Reno, who received a last-minute call because of a cancellation.
“I was in the car with my wife, and I put (the call) on the loudspeaker, “he explained. “My wife looked at me and told me to go.”
David Sousa of Honor Flight Nevada worked with Vonada with the paperwork, so the U.S. Air Force veteran could join the flight. During the application process, Vonada said Sousa told him to type in his email address, and that’s when the process became “creepy” in Vonada’s words.
“I put in my email address in the search, and the first two sites that came up were names of two guys I served (with),” he recalled, noting the two veterans were in his unit and died in Vietnam. “I thought I was over it, and their names came up. I thought I needed to call Dave back.”
Years of pent up emotion returned.
Vonada’s wife encouraged him to go on the trip, and he’s thankful he took her advice. The Honor Flight veterans and their guardians attended a special presentation Saturday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — or the Vietnam Wall — on the 35th anniversary of its dedication. Before the ceremony began, Vonada etched the names of his two fellow airmen on a piece of paper.
Nicholas Condos of Yerington stood next to Vanada at the wall. Two days before, Vonada and Condos were strangers. On this day, they were friends helping each other search for names.
“I don’t know if I had any friends (on the wall,) but I knew guys who lost friends, and their names are here,” said Condos, a Yerington resident who spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force.
As with any military-related endeavor, everyone has a story to tell. This Honor Flight produced more than enough copy and tears and laughter to fill a book.
World War II veteran Ken York of Reno served in the South Pacific aboard a Navy supply ship during the last two years of the war. His travels took him to the Philippines and finally to Okinawa. It was there on that island hundreds of miles from Japan when York and his shipmates learned of the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.
“Okinawa was the jumping-off place to Japan,” York said, of the next step in the war, a ground invasion.
If the United States didn’t drop the two atomic bombs on the island empire, then thousands of soldiers and marines would’ve sailed to Japan for a massive invasion. Victory Japan day, though, occurred on Aug. 14, 1945, a day York, who’s in his mid-90s, remembers every year. Aug. 14 is his birthday.
Although York hailed from a different era where the nation showed its veterans more gratitude, he said each speaker at the Vietnam Wall ceremony spoke of the mistreatment of veterans from their war.
“Gentlemen and Ladies,” York said. “I acknowledge you.”
Coincidentally, earlier in the day, a mother and school-board member from Wisconsin honored York at the U.S. Air Force Memorial. As a chaperone of the school’s band, she received a World War II commemorative medal, but Sandy Markech said “it didn’t feel right” to receive it for being on a bus with students.
With tears in her eyes, Markech walked over to York hugged him and then handed the medal to the WWII veterans and thanked him for his service.
“My uncle was a pilot in the Army Air Corps, and my father-in-law was a bombardier on a B17,” she said.
Mariner Charles Montanaro of Carson City served his country aboard a Merchant Marine vessel that carried ammunition during World War II. He echoed York’s assessment of Okinawa and the impending decision to launch an invasion would have resulted in thousands of deaths.
Montanaro, who assisted with the laying of the Merchant Marine wreath at a special ceremony at the World War II memorial, said when he returns home, he wants to let Vietnam veterans know they weren’t forgotten.
Another World War II vet from Gardnerville served as a radioman and gunner on a B25. He was involved with the placement of the wreath for the Scottish-American Society.
“I had no idea this was going to happen,” said Robert “Bob” Whalen of Gardnerville. “I didn’t think they knew I was a World War II vet.”
Veterans also visited Arlington National Cemetery and saw the changing of the guard. Afterward, Marine veteran Si Savoy of Gardnerville walked over to the headstones of World War II hero Audie Murphy and then to John Glenn’s, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth and who later serve as a U.S. senator from Ohio. Savoy said he had met both men as a result of his civilian careers.
After dinner veterans shared their experiences of the trip and what they saw at the various memorials. Veterans also received letters from Blue Star mothers who have son or daughters currently serving in the military, while others opened letters written by family members.
One such letter came from a vet’s daughter in law:
“Thank you for serving our country and for being an amazing example for our family. You made my happily ever after come true by raising an exceptional son. For these reasons and countless others, thank you.”
A Blue Star mother said she has a stepson who’s a Navy captain and a grandson in the Air Force.
“I know it was not an easy journey for you or your family. Please accept my deepest thanks. I was able to grow in a safe environment in a great country.”
Carson City resident Elizabeth Kitchen and her daughter, Rebecca, a news anchor and reporter for KOLO-TV who accompanied her grandfather on an Honor Flight in 2016, came aboard for this 21st journey.
“Her grandfather, my dad passed away (earlier this year),” Elizabeth Kitchen said. “My dad lived a life unappreciated. When he came home from Korea, he couldn’t find a job. But when came on this trip, he felt like a hero and was happy with this experience.”
Before he flew on his Honor Flight, doctors had diagnosed him with lung cancer.
“I came partially in honor of him and to watch my daughter work,” she added, her voice cracking.
Throughout the three days, Rebecca Kitchen interviewed veterans and told their stories for a television audience.
“I feel so privileged to be here,” said Kitchen, a Carson High School graduate. “On the trip with my grandfather, I got to spend time with him. This trip I’m bonding with a lot of you.”
Steve Ranson is LVN’s Editor Emeritus who covers military news for the Nevada Appeal and the LVN. He traveled with a group of veterans to Washington, D.C. as part of Honor Flight Nevada. Watch for his stories in future editors. To see more than 300 photographs of their whirlwind trip, go to photos on the LVN Facebook site.