When I was invited to go on Freedom Bird in November 2011, it was only a couple of days before the flight was due to depart. As it turns out, that was a good thing. If I had had time to think about it, I would have turned down this opportunity. I had stubbornly avoided seeing any representation of the wall until about a month before the flight. One of the traveling Walls was at the Phoenix VA Hospital, and to get to where I was going, I had to walk past it.
As I looked at all those names, a sense of loss and great sadness overcame me. I didn't feel worthy to be in the company of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow soldiers, and for our country. The feeling I had that day has never left me.
As we gathered on day that we were due to depart, I realized that I was the only “blue water” sailor in the group. There were only two others Swabbies in the group. Both were “brown water” sailors, and one was a corpsman. There was one Airman, and the rest were soldiers and Marines. I could not have felt any more out of place, no matter what the circumstances were.
When we departed Phoenix, almost no one was talking. It was an eerily quite flight all the way to Baltimore. None of us expected what was to happen there. As we departed the plane, people were cheering and waving American flags, and the entire concourse was clapping and cheering. Everyone was saying, “Welcome Home”, and “Thank you for your service.” I'm almost certain that there was not a dry eye in our group. Something we had hoped for and dreamed about for the last 40 years finally came true.
Although the flight was quite, the bus ride to DC was anything but quiet. We were like kids at a birthday party, a really good birthday party. We all quieted down as we got to DC, and our hotel. We all got checked in, and soon thereafter, we were on our way to The Wall. I was in awe as we walked up to the The Wall for the first time. Even in the darkness, I could see all the names, so many young men and women who didn't come home. I was speechless.
We visited The Wall at least twice a day after that. The daylight only brought the enormity of our loss into clear view. I just could not shake the overwhelming sadness I was feeling. However things soon began to change. Our group of individuals began to form into a family that cared for one another. If we saw a brother or sister crying, we comforted them. If we saw someone alone, we came to their side and walked with them. Here, we left no one behind. It didn't matter what they did, or what they saw, we were family, and we understood.
On Veterans Day, we got VIP seating for the presentation. A number of speakers stood out. Retired General McCafferty finally spoke the truth that we all already knew. The loss in Vietnam was a failure of leadership, pure and simple. General Westmoreland was singled out, as he should have been. I don't know about the others there, but I had been waiting for that admission for years. For me, that's when the real healing began. That was a good day, a very good day.
The mood of our entire group changed that day. The exclamation point for the entire trip came when we got to The Marine Barracks the following day. It was the Marine Corps birthday. These fine young Marines welcomed us as “Honored Guests”, shook our hands, and thanked us for our service. It just doesn't get any better than that. Period.
We left Phoenix as quiet strangers, we came home as brothers and sisters who genuinely cared for each other. At Sky Harbor, we got the welcome home we had always wanted, and that was more wonderful than words can express.