RENO — They left Reno on the diamond anniversary of the D-Day invasion as strangers.
Four days later, more than 40 veterans and their guardians returned from Washington, D.C. as both brothers and sisters in arms and friends after touring the nation’s memorials built in their honor.
One of the largest Honor Flight Nevada homecoming crowds packed the Reno-Tahoe International Airport’s corridor from the escalators to reception area. Family members and friends waved posters and miniature United States flags, while the Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention to form a flag detail along the corridor for the veterans who represented World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. As of this date, Honor Flight Nevada has flown 950 veterans to Washington, D.C.
Among the veterans from western Nevada were Mike and Marolyn Vadnais of Gardnerville, who moved to the Carson City-Douglas County area 15 years ago. Mike Vadnais was a career officer — a civil engineer — having served in the Air National Guard for 30 years with most of his time spent in California, on deployments and a tour in Washington, D.C. Marolyn was a nurse for three years at George Air Force Base in southern California.
The Vadnais, who have been married for more than 50 years, reminisced on their return to the nation’s capital and the response the Honor Flight veterans received.
“I thought of the warmth from the people on the street expressing their thanks and gratitude,” he noted as the veterans visited many historical sites and memorials.
Mike Vadnais said the U.S. Navy Museum is a hidden gem with the number of exhibits and artifacts. The Marine Corps nighttime presentation with its drum and bugle corps and silent march team also impressed the couple. Marolyn said the Korean War memorial with its lifelike soldiers caught her eye. They also stopped at the U.S. Air Force memorial, the Marine Corps Iwo Jima memorial and Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Bob Hopkins of Carson City spent two years in the Army during the Vietnam War. Assigned to the 1st Armor Division, he trained at Fort Hood, Texas, but then found himself assigned there. He thought it was strange he wasn’t going to Vietnam with his buddies.
“It wasn’t up to me,” Hopkins said of his stateside assignment. “I was a carpenter and did projects around the post.”
The four-day trip afforded father-son time for two Minden men.
“I’ve known Pat 27 years. He’s been like a second father to me and my kids,” said Nathaniel Dave Killgore, who accompanied Pat Burton as his guardian. “He’s been an inspiration and a great friend. I enjoy every minute with him, but I wish I could spend more time with him.”
Killgore said it was a good four days, and Burton has wanted to come to this part of the country.
“It’s been awesome,” Killgore said.
Killgore added Burton isn’t used to getting all this attention. For Burton, though, the gentle nudging finally made him fill out an application.
“The guys at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) always keep asking me if I’ve been on an Honor Flight,” Burton said. “I always thought there were more deserving than me to go. He (Dave) finally talked me into it.”
Killgore said he would like to involve Burton with other vets his age who live near his Minden home.
Burton, now 91, enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 29, 1945, and was sent to boot camp and then to radio school. With the war ending and the services beginning to reduce their ranks Burton made a career move. In 1947 the third class radioman joined the Coast Guard to enter into its aviation program, but it didn’t work out. In a roundabout way, though, Burton eventually found himself on the U.S. Coast Guard cutter and gunboat, the Iroquois a gunboat.
“It was a great experience to be on that ship,” he said. “I Iearned a lot.”
Although he dropped a rank moving from the Navy to Coast Guard, Burton said it was restored.
He was on Iwo Jima in 1950 at a Loran station when war broke out with Korea and also served at a Loran station on Okinawa. A Loran station, something similar to what Fallon and Searchlight had until they were shuttered in 2010 because of budget cuts and the expansion of GPS, provided navigation assistance to ships and planes.
Burton left the Navy in 1955 and came to the area where he became a teacher. During his military years, he also served at Whidbey Island (Washington state) as a radioman along with others who had transferred from Greenland.
During their four days, the veterans saw the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials, the U.S. Navy Museum, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial that’s represented by the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Holocaust Museum. The veterans also met former Republican Sen. Robert Dole who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was wounded during the waning days of battle. On good days, Dole sits at the entrance of the memorial greeting both World War II and other veterans.
The significance of June 6, 1944, weighed on Brian Kulipn, vice president of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority’s Marketing and Public Affairs .
“It’s fitting this flight departed on the 75th anniversary of D-Day,” said Kulpin, describing how 16,000 troops stormed France to free Europe from tyranny, which marked an important part of both American and world history and the nature of sacrifice and heroism. “We need to remember our heroes as we are doing today.”
Kulpin also gave pause to remember Nevada Army National Guard Staff Sgt. David Gallagher of Las Vegas who died almost two weeks ago in a training exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
The remembrance for D-Day and the Honor Flight Nevada gave Kulpin an opportunity to reflect on his family because his uncle was a part of the 101st Airborne’s “Screaming Eagles” who parachuted behind enemy lines as the invasion of Normandy unfolded.
Marily Mora, president and CEO, had a husband who served in Vietnam and a father who joined the military during World War II. She also noted the symbolic day of D-Day and the departure of the Honor Flight veterans.
“I have so much pride that we got to play a part of this that we could humbly stand here today and thank you again for your service,” she said.
Mora noted there were three father and son pairs, a daughter and her father, two married couples and a grandson and his grandfather. In addition, one Gold Star father who lost his son in Iraq accompanied the veterans and also visited his son’s final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
Before the veterans departed Reno for their whirlwind trip, four-footers and their owners from Dogs 4 Paws greeted them at the airport for the sendoff and upon their return. The Comstock Lode quilters presented veterans with their own hand-sewn quilt.