NOTE: D. Alex Mills enlisted in the U.S. Army Security Agency in 1966 and was discharged in 1970. He lives in Wichita Falls, Texas, but he has family in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area. Through his family’s non-profit O’Leary Foundation, Mr. Mills was asked to participate in an honor flight. This is his report.
By D. Alex Mills
On a chilly Saturday morning in May, I had the honor and pleasure of accompanying 87 other veterans on an honor flight to the nation’s capital.
The emotional journey, organized by Talons Out Honor Flight, began at 4:30 a.m. with our arrival at Kalamazoo, Michigan Airport. Amazingly, some people were there and cheered and shook our hand during our arrival.
We registered, got our picture taken, got a sack breakfast, and waited to board the airplane for the nation’s capital. About an hour later a young lady announced that we were ready to board our chartered flight courtesy of American Airlines, but first we were going to sing the national anthem. As we began to sing, some saluted, others removed their caps and placed them over their heart and everyone sang together. Very moving.
Most of the veterans – 74 – served during Vietnam and 11 served during Korea and 3 during World War II. A majority of the vets served in the Army followed by Navy, Marines and Air Force.
Also, each veteran was accompanied by a family member or friend, called “guardian,” who was assigned to take care of us if needed because about one-third of the vets were in wheel chairs and most of the remainder of the group probably had not walked the six miles or so we encountered on the one-day tour. My guardian was my great nephew, C.J., who served in the Marines in Afghanistan.
The hour-and-fifteen minute flight received a water cannon salute in Kalamazoo and again at Washington Reagan Airport. Very impressive! The respect given to these soldiers, sailors, and airmen who served many decades ago brought tears of joy.
The weather in the nation’s capital was overcast, but cloudy skies and drizzling rain was not going spoil this day for these guys and ladies. By the way there were 3 women veterans in the group.
A short bus ride to Arlington National Cemetery and we arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guard. The precision of the march of the guards, the timing of the three guards during the exchange of duty, and the beauty of the bugler playing Taps brought chills down my back and tears to my eyes.
Next stop the statue of Marines raising the flag of the United States at Iowa Jima during World War II, then to the Vietnam wall, Lincoln Memorial, Korean conflict, and World War II Memorial.
Everywhere we went in Washington we were greeted with strangers shaking our hand and thanking us for our service to the nation. Some even said “Welcome Home.”
During the flight back to Kalamazoo, the volunteers and staff of Talons Out Honor Flight gave each veteran a letters-from-home package, which included letters, cards, notes, etc. from our family members (adults and children) and some from even strangers expressing many emotions but they all boiled down to the feeling of “Welcome Home.”
“Welcome Home” touches the heart of all veterans but especially to Vietnam-era veterans because many did not get that “Welcome Home” feeling when they returned home some 50 years ago.
I, for one, always had pride I served in the Army, but many Vietnam-era vets were shaken by the controversy during the war and the treatment they received. Now, groups of citizens, like those in Kalamazoo, Michigan, have taken it upon themselves to say “Welcome Home” and it feels good!
The plane arrived just as the sun began to set in Kalamazoo, and we were met with a parade with a police escort to a nearby museum where hundreds of people warmly welcomed us home.
God bless and thanks to all of the staff and volunteers who took the time and effort to work on such a special event. And thanks to everyone who thanks all veterans for their service and “welcomes us home.”