WASHINGTON (NEWS10) — Time may not heal all wounds, but it has changed the way Vietnam veterans are treated in America. Proof of that is an initiative called Honor Flight. In October, over 100 local veterans traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials meant to honor them and their fallen comrades.
The journey started with a hero’s send-off before sunrise. A motorcade escort brought in veterans who came from the Capital Region and beyond. They stepped off the bus and were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers.
“I’m really surprised at the emotions. I didn’t think it would be that way,” Geb Wolf, a retired Aircraft Commander who served during the Vietnam War, said.
The non-profit Leather Stocking Honor Flight New York put forth countless efforts to fundraise for the trip. It was the first one of its kind out of Albany International Airport in over three years.
“Wow, what the heck was that? First, COVID, then we lost our flight with Southwest. What a disappointment, but we’re back!” Greg Furlong, Chair of the Leather Stocking Honor Flight, said.
The opportunity allows veterans to travel to the World II Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Vietnam Wall. Additionally, each veteran can bring along a guardian to escort them. Geb Wolf had his 20-year-old grandson Jack Murphy by his side.
“I walked in with him this morning and I saw him tear up a little bit and he almost got me crying too,” Murphy said. “I’ve never seen him anything but….” Grandpa Geb finished Jack’s phrase: “stoic.” This was his first visit to see the memorials in D.C.
“I’m most looking forward to go to the wall and seeing my friends,” Wolf said. “Gregory Allen Smith was a Warrant Officer with me, and we flew together, and he crashed, got shot down and killed and I was his body escort home.”
Veterans and their guardians took a plane ride to Baltimore and rode on three different buses. The first stop was the World War II Memorial, then to Arlington National Cemetery to view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After every stop, NEWS10’s Stephanie Rivas returned to her seatmate Terry Smith. He opened up about his time as a Combat Infantry Soldier in the Vietnam War.
“The living conditions were worse than being shot at,” Smith said. “Every day you got up again. Wore the same clothes, shaved out of your helmet, brush your teeth out of your helmet. It made me feel, you know, like an animal.”
Terry said going to war changed his perspective on the country that he served. “I have never voted in my life because any society that takes a 19-year-old kid and tries to kill him—and you have to be 21 to vote — I didn’t really care for that,” Smith said.
As the bus inched closer to the last stop, the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, Smith said he wasn’t sure how he felt about the monument. “I’ve seen a lot guys killed. I’ve seen a lot of guys hurt. I wanted to keep my name off that wall,” Smith said. “So, the best things for me to do is for me to be reverent and get in, get out.’
At the wall, many fell silent, standing in front of names they can’t forget and staring at memories they can’t change. As promised, Jack helped his grandpa locate his friend’s name on the wall.
“I remember everything about him,” Geb said with his head bowed. “He was my best friend.”
Many of the Veterans took etchings of names on the panels with a piece of paper and the side of a blunt pencil. They returned home to Albany with those mementos. Some exposed open wounds; others perhaps, received some new-found closure.
It was a 17-hour journey by the time the Leather Stocking Honor Flight landed at Albany airport. However, one more surprise was waiting as they exited the gate. A burst of applause and cheers from their family and friends who gathered at 10 p.m. Spouses embraced, and grandkids proudly held up signs that read “Welcome Home.”
A far cry from the cruel words and spitting faces some of the veterans saw when they returned from Vietnam.
“The whole country had turned against us. So, I appreciate all this. Better late than never,” Smith said.
A homecoming, 50-some years late.
“How’d you feel about the welcome you got today?” NEWS10 Stephanie Rivas asked Geb Wolf. He simply answered, “Outstanding.”