A Carson City mother and daughter experienced both a sense of closure for a Korean War veteran whose service they hardly knew but also satisfaction in knowing they could help other veterans experience the nation’s capital for its reverence of the military.
John Dottei, father to Elizabeth “Beth” Kitchen and grandfather to Rebecca, a reporter and news anchor for KOLO television in Reno, was described as a private man when asked about his military service more than 60 years ago. He traveled on an honor flight to Washington, D.C., in April 2016 after being diagnosed with lung cancer nine months before the trip. Honor flights originating from 36 different states take veterans to see the nation’s memorials and monuments built in honor of the country’s wars and their warriors. Eighteen months after Dottei’s three-day trip, both Beth and Rebecca boarded an Honor Flight Nevada during Veterans Day weekend to retrace the steps Poppie took last year.
“Quiet, private, depressed,” were the first words Beth used to describe her father — “Poppie” — who died in February at the age 85.
“He held a lot of secrets, and in his mind, sharing anything was hard for him and was a weakness. He wanted to be a man, a strong man,” Rebecca added. “He hadn’t really talked about anything.”
Dottei kept his war experiences to himself, and the family knew little of his involvement on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s. Still in his teens, Dottei enlisted in the United States Air Force after his high-school graduation and soon found himself going to Korea to be part of the major first conflict of the Cold War. Once he left Korea and headed back to home, his mind folded up his experiences like a tight cocoon. He spent 18 months in Korea, working in a clerical job in supplies in an area that constantly received artillery fire. Beth, a 1978 graduate of Carson High School, said her father put together some photos of his time spent as a supply clerk on a DVD for his family to sort through and see.
Rebecca accompanied her grandfather on her first honor flight as a reporter interested in telling her audience more about the veterans traveling to the nation’s capital. This also was an opportunity for her to know her grandfather — Poppie — better although he remained reluctant in divulging too much information about his war years. He said his granddaughter wouldn’t understand.
“I would ask him, and he would brush me aside,” she said.
Rebecca, who graduated from Carson High School in 2007, saw Poppie opening up more during their whirlwind trip, especially when they visited the Korean Memorial on a rainy day, similar to many days Dottei encountered in Korea. According to Rebecca, her grandfather shared his first memory with her.
“I had a couple friends captured back when they (Chinese soldiers) overran the Chosin Area,” Rebecca wrote in one of her stories. “They never came back.”
For a Korean War vet, the battle became the first major assault between the Chinese army and the United Nation forces at the sparsely populated Chosin Reservoir, a man-made lake located in the northeastern part of the peninsula. The battle’s main focus centered itself along a 78-mile long road connecting Hungnam and Chosin Reservoir, the only retreat route for UN forces. The battle also shattered the belief the United States could win the war within six months after it began; instead, the Korean War dragged on for another three years.
The Chinese army that consisted of more than 100,000 soldiers, which had streamed into Korean, forced the American units and their allies of 15,000 to retreat south of the 38th parallel. The First Marine Division, a few thousand soldiers and allied troops found themselves outnumbered by the Chinese and facing heavy casualties at the Chosin Reservoir, a body of water high in the mountains of what’s now North Korea. The area consists of some of the roughest terrain on the peninsula, and during November and December fighting, the troops experienced Korea’s harsh winter-like conditions.
Some reports said the temperatures dropped to more than 40 degrees below zero. Some say a bitterly cold Korean winter can also freeze a 50-gallon drum of oil.
It’s no secret Korean winters are known for their bitter cold and snow, a fact that was not lost on Dottei.
“He doesn’t like the cold, and it was raining,” Rebecca said of the short time they spent together at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Dottei then opened up more about the harsh conditions to Rebecca of how units tried to keep warm. He looked at the life-like soldiers patrolling within the memorial’s juniper field, all cloaked in ponchos shaped — as if they were blowing in the wind — and carrying rifles. The figures came alive for Dottei when he remarked on the ponchos for Rebecca’s story.
“I still have mine in the back of the car in case I need to change a tire in the rain,” he said, wearing a red Honor Flight Nevada sweatshirt underneath a yellow rain poncho.
As he looked at the stainless-steel figures of 14 soldiers, three marines, one sailor and one airman, though, he noticed all but one was wearing helmets. A fur hat covered the airman.
“I wore one of those hats,” Poppie said, turning to Rebecca.
Still Dottei didn’t say too much more of his war experience at the memorial except he would offer a snippet but not a full story. That night, though, the veterans had a mail call, receiving letters from Blue Star mothers, relatives and school children. More memories unfurled for Poppie.
Beth said her father was bitter his brothers and sisters in the military weren’t there for him.
“I got more mail here than I did in Korea,” he said. “I never got a letter from my mother.”
Rebecca remained determined to continue connecting with her grandfather and the other veterans. After this month’s honor flight, she said her veteran profiles for her stories is something that can’t be obtained anywhere.
After working with the veterans and watching her daughter put together stories for three days, Beth smiled, then softly spoke.
“I wanted to do this in honor of my father and see my daughter work,” Beth said, then she paused, “and how much I really miss my dad.”
Both Beth and Rebecca said the honor flight quickly became the highlight of his life. He was proud to show photos of his trip.
Jon Yuspa, executive director and founder of Honor Flight Nevada, remembers this story as one of the highlights of 2016. He said it was important for Rebecca to have that granddaughter connection when she took the trip last year. The connection resurfaced again this month with mother and daughter.
“She helped Rebeca and experienced the trip,” Yuspa said.
Within 72 hours on any Honor Flight, veterans from the different military services forge a strong bond after being with each other and sharing their stories of service and family. A special camaraderie emerges of brotherhood.
“Elizabeth walked through her father’s footsteps and became emotional,” Yuspa explained, “but she also helped other veterans on this trip.”
Beth pushed wheel-bound veterans around the memorials, assisted them with their meals and conversed with them during the day.
“She was part of the team,” Yuspa said.
To this day, Rebecca is grateful for Yuspa working with her grandfather because of his health and getting him on the flight. In this season of giving thanks, both Beth and Rebecca felt the trip allowed them to understand Poppie better.
“This is our way of saying thank you and giving back to other veterans,” Rebecca said on behalf of her mother. “I don’t have any blood-related grandfathers now, but I feel I have a lot of adopted grandfathers.”