Posted on August 8th, 2014 by Kimberly Mitchell
Last Friday, on August 1st, I had the honor of participating in my second Old Glory Honor Flight. American Airlines, in partnership with Old Glory Honor Flight from Wisconsin, flew me and 150 Vietnam veterans who live in Northeast Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. We spent the day in D.C. before going back to Oshkosh that evening for a long overdue homecoming and concert.
I was asked by the American Airlines Military and Veterans Initiatives to participate because of my unique story and background. In 1972, a South Vietnamese Marine took me from a man who had found me lying on the side of the road clinging to the body of my dead mother. This South Vietnamese Marine carried me to the Sacred Heart Orphanage in DaNang, South Vietnam. An American airman serving at the U.S. Airbase in DaNang brought gifts to the orphanage, and when the nuns placed me in his arms, he fell in love with me. He adopted me and in September of 1972, I was brought to the United States to start my new life. After my father retired from the Air Force, we moved to Wisconsin, so there’s another connection between me and the veterans on this Honor Flight.
Being asked to speak to the veterans on this flight is one of the highest honors I could have – to personally tell each and every one of these veterans that their service did something good – that they accomplished something in Vietnam.
I met the plane at the gate in D.C. and we went directly to the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This was their first time seeing the Memorial, and the memories of their experiences instantly surfaced. It’s daunting to watch them staring blankly at the Wall at the names of their brothers, comrades and best friends who never came home. Seeing the hurt suddenly surface was an emotional experience for anyone who was with them. I got the sense that for many of them, the healing began with that visit to the Wall.
Vietnam was a tough war. These soldiers, sailors, airman and marines never expressed their feelings because no one wanted to listen. There were no parades, no expression of thanks, no welcome home. Now, 40 years later, they are being recognized. Everywhere we went, people lined up to cheer them on, hug them and thank them. I got the sense that the weight of the world was lifted off their shoulders – that guilt many felt coming home when so many didn’t. To have someone randomly come up to them and be appreciative for their service is so new to them. It’s so emotional; many of them cry from the moment they come off the plane to when they return to Oshkosh.
We also visited the Price of Freedom display at the American History Museum. The museum makes the exhibit very realistic with darkness and lots of sounds like helicopters. For some of them it’s more than they can handle and puts them back in a place where they are not ready to be, so they step outside. We ended the day with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and were able to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The most meaningful part of the day for me was the flight back to Oshkosh. Once in the air, I was asked to come to the front of the plane and tell my personal story, what I’m doing now and why their service is so important to me. I talk about how my generation of veterans looks to their generation, their leadership, understanding, and guidance. We recognize that we are successful on the battlefield, in the air and on the sea because of our Vietnam veterans. We also recognize that we are successful when we come home because we can talk about our challenges. These special passengers understand. They served during a time when service was unpopular, but they did so with courage, valor and honor.
I told them that they are all my heroes. Then I shook each one of their hands, going row to row to make sure I didn’t miss anyone. One man just held my hand with tears of joy in his eyes. He said, “I can go home and tell my wife I did something good over there.”
Thank you to all of the veterans on this Honor Flight for what you did, for giving this little baby by the side of the road a chance to thrive. I wouldn’t be here without you. You are my heroes.