For Vietnam veteran Harold Wells and scores of others, painful memories of the return home from war persist, but have now lessened thanks to the honor of a lifetime.
Wells and more than 90 other Vietnam veterans Saturday received the welcome home they deserve through Blue Ridge Honor Flight, which flies veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorials. Around 10 Korean War and three World War II veterans also made the journey, and all were met back at Asheville Regional Airport by an enthusiastic crowd.
“It feels great,” Wells said through sobs next to cheering residents holding signs and waving flags Saturday evening. “It makes me forget about the first time I came home from Vietnam. They protested us. They called us killers. They spit on us.”
In Honor Flight’s 13-year history, this was the first trip focused on Vietnam veterans.
“The welcome home was more important to this group than any we have flown before,” Blue Ridge Honor Flight founder Jeff Miller said. “It isn’t total closure for anyone, but a step in the right direction.”
The veterans, along with around 60 volunteer guardians, traveled to the war memorials and were honored for their service to their country. Around 10 of the guardians were veterans themselves.
A Gold Star mother, Anne Adkins, was also invited on the flight. Her son, Matthew T. Bolar, was killed in Iraq in 2007. She was the first Gold Star parent to join the veterans on the flight.
“I’ve never been so honored like I was by the people in Washington and by the people at home today; I love them all,” Wells said. “I think the times are changing to like they were in the ’50s and ’40s when people respected and honored our soldiers like they should.”
The mood was somber throughout parts of the trip Saturday. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, many stood silently glancing over the names. Some cried, while others took tracing paper and pencil to rub off the names of their fallen brothers.
Donald “Steve” Praytor still remembers the feeling he had watching the Vietnam War Draft Lottery on television one late night at work in 1970. His birthday, July 7, was drawn 50th. If he was born just one day earlier, he would not have been called to serve.
“I was sure that meant I had to go,” Praytor recalled.
Only a few weeks later he received orders and prepared to ship out. The Henderson County native flew out of Asheville Regional Airport on the first leg of his trip destined for Saigon, Vietnam to join the U.S. Army. He turned 21 midflight.
He still remembers a talkative plane of GIs falling silent when a voice came over the intercom announcing their descent over what would be Praytor’s home for the next 18 months. He hasn’t forgotten the overwhelming odor of charcoal that hit him when he first stepped into enemy territory.
He still can’t stand the smell of a burned out candle decades later. The stench reminds him of when everything went pitch black deep within the jungles of Vietnam.
It was there he was dropped off out of a pick-up truck after 10 days of training.
The senior soldiers, recognizable by their tattered uniforms and mud-covered boots, didn’t want anything to do with newbies, as their inexperience was considered dangerous, Praytor explained.
“You had to figure things out yourself,” he said.
When Praytor flew back a year and a half later, he didn’t announce his arrival to anyone. He called his wife, Susan, from the Asheville airport. She didn’t recognize his voice. They had only been married two months when Praytor was drafted.
For Darrell McCurry, the welcome home at the airport Saturday was quite different than the greeting he and fellow soldiers received more than 40 years ago.
“It was bad. We were afraid to come home and wear our uniforms,” McCurry remembered. “They spit on us. Hollered and cussed us. They were just bad people. These people made up for it.”
The Hendersonville community is supportive of its veterans, McCurry said, which he is thankful for, along with the opportunity to go on the Honor Flight trip.
“It was an honor to do it. I’d love to do it all over again. I just wish we had more time,” he said. “I loved being here with all these men and hearing their stories.”
Even more than 70 years later, recollections of serving in the U.S. Army in World War II are still vivid to Lloyd McCall. They were made even more clear after visiting the memorial Saturday.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” McCall said with tears in his eyes before boarding the plane back to Asheville Saturday night.
The day had many highlights for the 95-year-old, including being honored with a medal at the World War II Memorial along with the two other veterans on the trip, Thurman Horner, 90, and Samuel Lattimore, 92.
McCall was also glad to have met and taken a photo with former U.S. Sen. and fellow veteran Bob Dole.
While waiting for Dole’s arrival outside the World War II Memorial, Korean War veteran Jerry Parham stopped to soak it all in.
“This has all just been wonderful,” he said while looking around at the crowd of veterans.
The day dredged up raw memories from the past for the veterans, but Parham and others said they were glad to be able to experience the journey together. He carried with him the coin he received at the Korean War Memorial. “Korean War Veteran, Freedom is Not Free,” reads the memento’s inscription.
A more than four-hour delay at the airport due to fog Saturday morning cut into the schedule a bit, but organizers were determined to give the veterans the experience they deserved.
Many veterans joked the delay reminded them of the military’s unofficial motto of “hurry up and wait.”
Supporters were waiting to welcome the veterans at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport when they arrived. On the plane ride home, each veteran was given a large envelope filled with letters and thank you cards, written by family members, friends and thankful members of the community. They were met by hundreds of supporters at Asheville Regional Airport when they returned home.
The veterans were also honored at a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial during their first stop in Washington, D.C. Each group of veterans was individually recognized at the Vietnam War Memorial, Korean War Memorial and World War II Memorial.
“It was pretty neat to sit back and watch the veterans all get acquainted with each other,” Miller said. “The most emotional part was the wall at the Vietnam memorial. I spent a good bit of time getting the tracing of names for veterans and quietly stepping back and observing. Boy, it was an emotional heavyweight for sure.”
A police escort quickly and easily steered the veterans around Washington, D.C., and they were able to take in many of the sights and bits of history through tour guides on each individual bus.
It is common for the veterans who go on Blue Ridge Honor Flights, which happen about twice a year, to not have visited the memorials in Washington, D.C. before, Miller said. Many haven’t stepped on an airplane since they shipped out for service.
That was one of the main motivators that drove Miller to start the nonprofit organization, which has helped thousands of veterans make the journey to their memorials.
“A lot of the veterans had not gone to the wall because it was too raw for them to go by themselves,” Miller said. “To go with 90 of their comrades made it more manageable to them. It is a lot easier to go with their friends.”
© 2018 Times-News, Hendersonville, N.C.
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