Operation Freedom Bird 2010
Story and photographs by Patrick Ziegert-
On September 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of the terror attacks on America I was working at a Yellow Ribbon Program event in Phoenix, Arizona. I just started my new job as the community partner liaison for the State’s reintegration program and I already had to see about taking some days off in November. It was because I received a call from Loraine Kern, a counselor at the Mesa Vet Center, inviting me to participate in Operation Freedom Bird. I knew nothing about the program, but it was explained that I needed to have an answer back to Loraine soon so plans could be made. I was selected by the Vet Center staff to go to Washington D.C.
I fully expected my new employer to tell me that it was not reasonable to take the time for several reasons: I just started there the day before. I was sure I had no time on the books to take and we were planning the largest Yellow Ribbon activity in the program’s history for November 13th; the day right after the four days I would be gone. I approached my bosses with limited information and the expectation they would say no. Much to my amazement, they said yes. In fact, they were excited to learn more.
In the following weeks, I learned what Operation Freedom Bird was: a “healing journey” for veterans of combat. It began 23 years ago when Pat Lynch, a pilot for America West Airlines and Vietnam veteran, went to his company with a plan. He wanted to take these vets to Washington D.C. during Veteran’s Day and help them make positive progress in their recovery after experiencing the incredible trauma of war. America West agreed to help sponsor the event and the Vets Centers across the state began organizing. Funded by donations from corporate sponsors and private donations, Operation Freedom Bird took flight with 50 combat veterans, all who were at a certain place in their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder recovery, and ready to make some peace with their past- and themselves.
Each of the participants is a Vet Center customer and was selected by the centers’ staff to attend based on their progress so far. For the last 23 years, Pat Lynch, Ken Benckwitz, and Joe Little (both Vietnam veterans and counselors with the Vet Centers) have planned, participated in and successfully completed escorting these veterans on this journey. This is not a trip, nor a vacation. Many of these participants have not wanted to, nor had the opportunity to, deal with the horror they were witnesses to decades prior. They were going to confront ghosts, the loss of brothers, and the loss of innocence in almost every case. They had been carrying loads of extra baggage and the intent of the journey was to help these people empty out their rucksack; even if just a bit. Counselors and professionals accompanied the veterans and helped them where ever they could. Some would need to be given plenty of space and others would need the close contact of trusted comrades through all parts of the experience.
The previous 22 years were focused on veterans of the Vietnam conflict and had been great successes. This year, a decision was made to include veterans of the latest wars and six Operation Iraqi Freedom vets were selected to participate. I was one of them. We represented almost all branches of the armed forces, opposite ends of relationship and employment spectrums, and came from amazingly diverse backgrounds; but we were all combat veterans. I was honored to be chosen to be part of what would become one of the most powerful and emotionally challenging events of my life.
So it began. The first meeting was at Carl T. Hayden, Phoenix Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where I timidly began meeting my new battle buddies. I met Joe Rhoads and Joe Little for the first time and listened to their opening remarks. There were probably 30 veterans and some of their significant others in attendance. There were others in attendance at different locations in the state; bringing the total to 50 veterans. We heard what Operation 2
Freedom Bird was intended to do and about its long history. We were shown video of a previous year and I was overwhelmed. All of us were educated in who has made this incredible journey possible. Southwest Airlines had taken up the reigns from America West and there was a long list of generous contributors; some who wished to remain anonymous. All of the expenses would be covered by the selfless sponsors. The only thing we needed to put in was our hearts and souls. That night we submitted our military biographies and had our pictures taken for the book that would be published in remembrance of our journey. My anxiety began to fade as I became more comfortable with the people in the room and the information about the upcoming weeks. The “two Joes” exchanged great amounts of witty banter and brought the audience to common ground and ease. The most profound statement of the night was made by Joe Little, who said, “we are all leaving together and we will all come back together. No one will be left behind.”
This journey was going to be a challenge. I just started the new job, I just became a full-time student and I was planning a huge reintegration activity for returning National Guard and Reserve units the day after we would return. I also became more aware that I would be confronting parts of my past I knew I had not finished dealing with. I heard that others were apprehensive and had some mixed feelings about going. As we heard more about what would happen and I developed a plan to deal with outside responsibilities, the journey became more real. We would meet a total of three times before our flight out. Those of us who visit the Mesa Vet center met one additional time, away from the large crowd, so we could grow to know each other a bit more. That meeting was the one that brought my fears and anxiety to the surface.
I was in a room with guys who survived Vietnam. They were truly heroes to me and they were perfect strangers, but for our common thread of having served in combat. I listened to the statements Loraine and Paula (another Vet Center counselor) made about grief and loss. They guided all of us through the things that caused us the most fear about the days to come. The others shared their stories and I felt like I was one of them because of the similarities of how we felt and dealt with our experiences. On the other hand, I was the “kid”, even at 38 years old. I did not feel like I fit in completely with these alumni of a different war than mine. That meeting, however, showed me that I was no different from them as these men embraced me and called me their hero. They welcomed me in, promised me that they would never let the shame and pain of an ungrateful nation burden me and explained I did not need to be haunted for the next 40 years as they had been. A solemn pride and percolating emotions overcame me that day and I felt like I was with brothers.
On Tuesday, November 9th, 2010, my aunt dropped me off at Sky Harbor International Airport and I saw all of the participants in the same place for the first time. Southwest Airlines was handing out the boarding passes and collecting checked baggage for us. They put a yellow ribbon on all of our bags- making it easier to find them at the other end of the flight and symbolizing the support of service members deployed in combat. I met up with the people I have come to know through the past weeks and we joked around with each other until we had to head to the departure gate. We navigated through a sea of inquisitive eyes and curious children wondering who we were. We were wearing black hats with the words “Operation Freedom Bird” and the campaign ribbon of our conflicts- Vietnam and Iraq. I imagine we looked rather formidable to some in such a large group, but others on the way had stopped to thank some of us for our service. The first time for many of the veterans of Vietnam, who remembered the last time they were at an airport with other vets. The past experiences were no longer present as grateful civilians passed their gratitude instead of empty bottles or hurtful words. I could feel some of the trepidation lift as these men accepted the words of supportive people.
We grabbed some food or drink and settled into seats at the departure gate. Without warning, one of the Southwest employees took the microphone at the gate counter and made an announcement. He loudly let everyone in the 3
entire terminal know that there were 50 honorable veterans present and on their way to Washington for this healing journey. He recognized Operation Freedom Bird and explained that Southwest Airlines was proud to host the brave veterans on this important holiday. The terminal thundered. I had no idea what applause in an airport could sound like, generated by hundreds of patriotic passengers. The Southwest employee then opened his heart and sang “I’m Proud to be an American” into the intercom. I think all of my battle buddies there knew what the rest of the journey would be like as this set the tone.
We boarded the plane and settled into the back seats. I think we did this to stay together and keep accountability, but I also think that it kept us from bothering the other passengers as many of us re-discovered the camaraderie we have not felt for some time. Many of these men had reversed in age and experience as they made strong bonds with guys they would have known when they were much younger. The laughter and the conversations were able to make the flight for us seemingly short and probably very long for the people in the front of the plane. Actually, I believe everyone was sharing in the experience and the other passengers were happy to be present with us. Four hours and some minutes later, we landed at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
As we deplaned, we traveled down the walkway toward to terminal. We were told that the Southwest Air family was incredibly supportive and patriotic. That was made abundantly clear when the faint cheers I heard initially as I walked through the tunnel turned into a warm “welcome home” reception as we entered the airport. Handmade signs, balloons, and banners were accompanied by a very large group of fans. There were people of all ages. Some were obviously employees, but most were not wearing anything to identify them as Southwest workers. We were greeted by veterans of WWII, who extended a hand when they took breaks from clapping. Several
A Hero’s welcome at Baltimore/Washington
appreciative women were giving hugs to passing members of my group and it was perfect. Tears filled the eyes of more than a few of us as we truly felt the efforts, support, and incredible connection of the people receiving us. There was a standing ovation all through the BWI terminal from people who may have had no idea who we were other than “returning” combat veterans. The pride of a grateful group was everywhere; including in the tears of many of them as well. What began in Phoenix a few short hours ago had carried over here in Baltimore, but the most emotional thing about it were two huge words: Welcome home…
These were words never spoken to most of us. I had a good home coming when I returned from Iraq, but my Vietnam brothers did not. I saw one of my fellow veterans pull a long finger across the bottom of his teary eye and shuttered the words, “oh my God”. He was finally welcomed home after 40 plus years of hiding that he was a Vietnam veteran. My heart broke and filled with joy for him at the same time. The healing had begun.
We picked up our checked luggage and met Tony, out transportation expert and tour guide for the next four days. His reputation preceded him because he had been the driver of the Operation Freedom Bird tour bus for years before. He knew his way around Washington and could maneuver the huge bus like a bug. Many times during the travels, we looked out the windows and leaned against the glass, watching the obstacles Tony threaded through, believing we would never get past. He guided the coach 4
along highways, pathways and driveways designed for horse carriages two hundred years ago with the ease and precision of a slalom skier. It was night and we had places to go, so we were happy our driver had such great skill.
That night was the first visit to the wall; the Vietnam War Memorial. I had been there once before a long time ago, before I even knew what it represented. What I knew about this visit though, was that everyone with me knew and it was the first time almost all of them had been here. Pictures and television were the two dimensional glimpses they had in the past. At that moment, the present met their pasts as we pulled up to the hallowed ground the wall occupied. The night was clear and mild. We stepped from the bus onto the leaf covered grass near the memorial. In a large circle, our counselors; Joe, Joe, Ken and Pat gave several words of encouragement as we prepared to continue the journey. No one else spoke and there was a great sense of anticipation. When we broke the 50 plus strong huddle, we faced the path that led us to the wall. Rounding the corner to the main path, I did not even recognize what was before me. I did not see the wall at first and I wondered where it was. As I looked through the dark night, however, I saw the tapered end of the extreme right side of the monument. Dim lights at its base led my eyes down the initially unassuming slab, but the magnificence crept up on me like the escalation of war. Suddenly I realized I was looking at the entire black granite monolith with light colored scratching as far as I could see. All of those names. All of those people. The beauty and sheer impact of the number of engravings took my breath away. I walked alone and began thinking about my comrades. I wondered how they felt at this moment, but I did not want to say a word.
As I slowly shuffled down the descending path along this incredible reminder of such a terrible conflict, I saw some of my friends. Trembling with fear and sorrow, agony and anxiety and the memory of people, places and things past, it brought some to their knees. I began to feel the memory of my own unit that had perished in Iraq. Time passed and the pinch had given way to daily priorities over the last four and a half years since I lost my three friends. I suppose I did not have the courage to grieve properly before because I was never in the right place with the right people. If this was not it and they were not them, then I would never find peace. As I continued to walk alone, I brought the thoughts I had pushed back for so long up to the front of my mind. Still, something inside of me was resisting. I was not letting go. I could not let go.
We stayed for a short time that night and got back on the bus. I remember it was silent then, but maybe it was me in a fog as my thoughts were creeping in and I was becoming raw again. Quietly, we rode to the hotel.
The next morning came very early. We had a two-hour time difference, not in our favor, and got in rather late the night before.
It was November 10th, the 235th Birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Operation Freedom Bird had VIP seating at the event, which was at the Iwo Jima Memorial just a few miles from the hotel. We arrived with plenty of time to do a bit of visual wandering. We were the first attendees to arrive so we had the opportunity to get to our seats and to observe the other guests. Every Marine and service member was dressed in their best ceremonial uniform for the traditional and proud activity. I had a pre-conceived notion of what this birthday celebration was going to be like, but as with the other pieces of this journey so far, I was about to be overwhelmed again.
I had never seen so many stars on uniforms mixed in with distinguished guests in one place before. Although I did not recognize the names or faces of most of the people there, I watched as the new Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James F. Amos arrived. He was accompanied by other significant high ranking Marines, including the key note speaker, Senator John Glenn. They walked right behind my chair then down the aisle next to me to their seats for the formalities. The Iwo Jima Memorial was constructed of six 32-foot tall figures erecting a 60-foot flagpole; in honor of the raising of the 5
Stars and Stripes after defeating the Japanese in the largest Marine battle in history. It was the back drop to the celebration. The weather was perfect for a November day and we had front row seats.
USMC 235th birthday celebration
The event began and The President’s Own Marine Corps Band took the field. I have seen military performances in the past and watched Hollywood make attempts at replicating this elite musical unit, but The President’s Own are in a league of their own. We were treated to several marches, including many by John Phillip Souza in a performance most accurately described as absolutely perfect military precision. The whole parade grounds were steeped with pomp, circumstance, and teeming pride. Marine Corps rifle companies and the color guard took their positions. In one of the best performances I have seen, respectful silence fell as we honored the colors and listened to the National Anthem. Once all of the pieces of the Always Faithful chess board were in place, we began hearing from the distinguished speakers.
General Amos became the 35th Commandant of the Marie Corps 19 days before this celebration. He had 40 years of service before taking command as the top Marine and owns a distinguished service record. The General began to introduce the key note speaker and I continued to learn and become more impressed by the service of others. The Honorable John Glenn had been a Combat Aviator for the Marines during two conflicts, was an Astronaut, and a distinguished Senator for several terms. The most moving portion of the introduction was when General Amos quoted Glenn’s response to Howard Metzenbaum during the 1974 Ohio Democratic fight for the Senate seat. Retired Colonel Glenn rebutted a statement regarding his never holding a real job. The response those years ago echoed across the parade field this day and sent a sense of stoic patriotic pride through every person there.1
Howard Metzenbaum to John Glenn:
Metzenbaum: "How can you run for Senate when you've never held a 'job'?"
Glenn: "I served 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. I was through two wars. I flew 149 missions. My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different occasions. I was in the space program. It wasn't my checkbook. It was my life that was on the line. This was not a 9-to-5 job where I took time off to take the daily cash receipts to the bank. I ask you to go with me . . . as I went the other day to a Veterans Hospital and look those men with their mangled bodies in the eye and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother, and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job."
"You go with me to the space program, and you go as I have gone to the widows and the orphans of Ed White and Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, and you look those kids in the eye and tell them that their dad didn't hold a job."
"You go with me on Memorial Day coming up, and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery - where I have more friends than I like to remember - and you watch those waving flags, and you stand there, and you think about this nation, and you tell me that those people didn't have a job. "
"I tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life 6
thanking God that there were some men - some men - who held a job. And they required a dedication to purpose and a love of country and a dedication to duty that was more important than life itself. And their self-sacrifice is what has made this country possible.... I have held a job, Howard."
At the closing of the Commandant’s remarks, Senator Glenn spoke to us. It was a true honor to be in the presence of such a great American. John Glenn is a national treasure and he was right here, yards away, speaking at one of the most historic celebrations of our country. John Glenn’s presence and speech were other examples of proper military planning and precise execution, delivered by a “retired” Marine. There are, after all, no former Marines. After he spoke, Senator Glenn assisted in the laying of the wreath at the foot of the memorial. Once he took his place back at the head of the viewing population, The Unites States Marines showed their brilliance and colors as they passed in review in front of us. It was a magnificent spectacle and I was honored to be part of it as a guest. The way I felt was the way all of us felt that day- privileged to have been part of a long heritage of celebrated veterans. I believe we all felt we were part of something huge. We were part of our nation’s proud history and it seemed like it was the perfect place to understand that.
Commandant Amos and Senator Glenn, arriving
A short bus ride later and after a pizza lunch, we were back at the Vietnam Memorial. This was the first “day” visit and the wall looked so different from the night before. Our group seemed a little more prepared to conduct business after last night’s introduction. There were no instructions for the visit; we were told what we could gain from the experience the days before. This was our time to continue to heal. Perhaps the daylight made the wall slightly less unapproachable. Maybe the brief visit the night before took some of the unknown out of the experience. Whatever it may have been, the participants of Operation Freedom Bird walked up to the memorial with a purpose. People were thumbing through the directories to find names, some were looking for the names on the wall they found the night before and in a short time some had made the connection with lost friends they had not seen for almost 50 years.
Making a connection- with support
Here I saw the healing the journey intended. For some it became too much to handle and they had to leave the area, but they had confronted their fears. Others stayed and grieved in front of a name they timidly found. Each experience was as diverse as the names on the wall, but each shared one common thread- this was where the past collided with the present. This is where some knew they had to be to put things in proper perspective. This is where the burden of carrying guilt, shame, sorrow, and loss for some had to stay. Finally, this popped the balloon and set free emotions kept under pressure no one else was allowed to see for decades. I had that “a-ha” moment when I saw, 7
firsthand, people making progress with an injury sustained during combat.
The next part of the day had us back on the bus and visiting Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery was constructed post Civil War and is the final resting place of American military casualties dating as far back as the American Revolution. Other important contributors to our nation’s history such as past presidents, pioneers and significant people are laid to rest on the grounds. The property began as a plantation belonging to the adopted grandson of George Washington. The daughter of Washington’s grandson, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, inherited the property after her parents’ deaths. She married a long time friend, Robert E. Lee, and they lived at Arlington House until the onset of the Civil War. Lee took charge of the confederate army and left Arlington. Federal troops took the property as a strategic over-watch guarding Washington D.C. The property was later converted to the prestigious resting place for nearly 300,000 American icons.
Once we entered the cemetery, we boarded a tour tram and listened to the knowledgeable guide describe the monument’s history. I had a different observation this time compared to my last visit 20 plus years ago. I recall being slightly haunted by the astonishing number of grave sites dotting the country side as far as I could see. I could not comprehend the number of dead being remembered in a single place. This time, however, I had a great sense of pride and patriotism as I could quietly acknowledge the men and women honored here. The tram escorted us to the path leading to one of the most spectacular displays of tribute our county has for our fallen military members: The Tomb of The Unknowns.
A grand monument and amphitheater encompass the tomb of two U.S. service members who had been killed in action but not identified. An armed soldier in dress blues guarded the tomb and was relieved at half hour intervals during this time of year. The Honor Guard at the tomb had been in place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since 1937. The Changing of The Guard has been an un-rivaled display of military tradition and was executed with the precision that only the finest of Honor Guards could perform. We arrived in time to witness the laying of several ceremonial wreaths. Children from a neighboring school and representatives of foreign militaries brought these tributes to our war dead and each wreath was given its own proper ceremony. I was eye level and mere feet away from the tomb guards and their activities. There was something special about that place; words cannot begin to describe the meaning, the honor, or the traditions that place represents. It was like seeing the very soul of our country on display in pristine condition.
Changing of the Guard- Tomb of the Unknowns
After a stout cup of caffeine and a sizable scrambled egg breakfast, the 50 of us participants and our escorts found our way back to Tony and his coach. It was now Veterans Day, November 11th, 2010. We had a busy itinerary and looked forward to the next touchstone. Our schedule took a surprising turn when we diverted from the planned activities and arrived at the Pentagon. Our purpose was to visit the memorial of September 11, 2001. It had been decided to incorporate this stop to bring all of us closer to the current conflicts and what started them off. A good portion of the journey was designed for the healing of our Vietnam brothers. That was the original goal of Operation Freedom Bird. The stop here at the Pentagon was to have the veterans of more recent campaigns fold into the meaning of our journey a bit more. 8
Nothing built in our nation’s capital is built carelessly or crudely. The memorial at the Pentagon was no exception. The 184 people who lost their lives during the most extreme attack on our soil by foreign hands are honored on the west side of the property. Stainless steel and granite benches with the names of each victim stand in the ground flight 77 struck that fateful day. Fifty-nine benches are positioned so the open ends of the cantilevered monuments are visible if you are facing the flight path of the high-jacked aircraft. The passengers’ memorials are displayed in this way. The other 125 benches are positioned along the same line, but are read if you are facing the Pentagon.
During more quiet moments of our stop, I had time to look to the sky where the airplane would have come from. I imagined the fear and horror of the occupants of flight 77 as it powered up, clipped neighboring towers and roof tops, and then crashed into the grounds where I was currently standing. I had a feeling of total helplessness as I tried to put myself in the place of Dana Falkenberg, three years old and the youngest victim onboard American Airlines flight 77. The details of that day nine years ago came pouring back to me and I reviewed the incidents here and in New York in my mind. For most of the veterans of Iraq, this was the spark that caused us to answer our nation’s call to arms. I know it was the beginning of a series of events that eventually led me to voluntarily put myself into harm’s way. Standing here at this memorial reminded me why I made my decision to join my brothers and sisters in arms and make a stand for our country. Any questions about my motives or any questions about the worthiness of my decisions were answered as I stood among the benches representing the innocent victims.
This, perhaps, is the closest thing to a memorial for the Global War on Terror so far. The sad, simple truth is that in time, we will have a stand-alone symbol of those conflicts somewhere near this place- just as we do for Vietnam and Korea and World War Two…
All of us were getting to know each other better. While we made stops at such powerful landmarks, we became more aware of our contributions. Friendships were being made. Stories were being told. Washington became a backdrop while we had a chance to exchange experiences with each other. Some of us found a new confidence in the ranks on the bus. No one could have felt alone and it seemed to me that the air had become less cluttered. Although we met a short time ago, the bonds of brotherhood of fellow soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen made it seem as if we had been together for a lifetime already. Nothing up to this point, however, had as much of an impact or allowed me to find my healing as what was about to transpire.
Operation Freedom Bird had VIP seating during the Veterans Day services at the Vietnam Memorial. The day before, I asked Pat Lynch about a dilemma I was having. I had several photographs of my deceased friends lost in Iraq and I wanted to honor them by leaving the photographs somewhere along this journey. I felt it might help me with my recovery and I wanted them to be part of the process by being part of these monuments. The problem I was having is that it did not seem to be the right place so far to lay the pictures down. Would they fit in at the wall? Was there a place in Arlington I could put them to rest? So far, nowhere seemed to be the right place to pay respect to my fallen team. Pat told me that Operation Freedom Bird had a wreath that would be part of the ceremony on Veterans Day. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he thought it would be appropriate to leave the pictures at the wreath and I agreed.
I was already anxious thinking about having to face my emotions. Now Veterans Day was here and I had to find the courage to say goodbye- again. I was not sure how I would do that, but I had the strength of my new brothers to back me up as I had done for a few so far. When I told a couple of my fellows what I had planned, they were extremely supportive and I felt like I was being carried to a point I could find some sort of peace with the past. The pinnacle of this healing journey was about to come as we arrived at the wall for the services. 9
Joe Little pulled me off to the side and explained that Operation Freedom Bird had a wreath at a staging area next to other wreaths to be placed at the wall. Because I was a veteran of Iraq and the other participants wanted to make sure we were included in the ceremony, I was asked if I would be part of a group of four to lay the wreath. I cannot fully explain what an honor this was and I felt truly blessed at that moment. I was going to be part of the ceremony where I would leave the memory of my own war losses. Something came together at that moment. I was so proud and so nervous. Live coverage by CSPAN did not cause me to feel uncomfortable. The eyes I felt on me were those belonging to my comrades, both past and present. The hundreds of strangers present did not intimidate me but I felt totally exposed. I represented something powerful to so many people and I was also going to put some of the past to rest in a way I could never have done if it were not for this journey.
The program called for guest speakers and ceremonious displays. There were two color guards posted at the top of the wall for the duration of the event. A police honor guard was positioned along the wall and once again, the weather could not have been more cooperative. A very emotionally charged version of America The Beautiful was performed by Kera O’Bryon and I could not hold back a few tears. Nothing about this experience was eluding me and somehow I could soak all of it in. It was time for the wreath ceremony. I was shaking as I approached our wreath, pictures in hand, with my three battle buddies. Dennis Drafton (USMC- Vietnam 1969-1970), “Doc” Mets (U.S. Army- Vietnam 1971-1972), David Silva (U.S. Army- Vietnam 1969-1970) and I (U.S. Army- Iraq 2005-2006) carried the Operation Freedom Bird wreath down the east path of the memorial and placed it with other beautiful tributes to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.
A bag pipe played Amazing Grace and a bugler sounded Taps. Both were songs played at the memorial for my friends in Bagdad, Iraq. With their pictures in hand, I wept for Justin Vasquez, Eric Poelman and Scotty Ulbrich- the three lost in my presence on June 5th, 2005. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I lifted the wire tri-pod supporting our wreath slightly and set the pictures down under one of the legs. A great weight seemed to have been lifted and I also felt very close to those three again. I was very sad and nervous then. The entire journey finally became healing for me as I recognized a small change. I was going to be able to move past some of my trauma I had been clinging to for four and a half years- maybe. I was present for others who could finally say goodbye after nearly half a century. Somewhere along the way of trying to find myself since I deployed, I must have done something right. Many have said that recovery is learning how to adjust to the “new normal” and I had been trying to understand what that was. War changed me. I had been turbulently stepping in and out of knowing who I was and what felt “right”. Finally, for a moment, this felt right for right now. Adjusting to the new normal meant leaving unchangeable things from the past where they belong; in the past. Having the joy of knowing my friends before they died seemed like that could be the way of my future instead of clutching to the horror of how they perished. I began to think.
Once the ceremony was completed, it was time to tour the grounds of the memorial. I learned how to thank people for their service and welcome them home. That is to say I discovered how powerful those simple words were for our brave service members, especially knowing an entire generation rarely heard them. Certain cultural differences used to keep me distanced from others I saw because there were no commonalities between us. I used to walk past people I did not know without stopping because no external connection was made. That day the entire area was filled with veterans. Hats, jackets, t-shirts, mixed and matched uniforms from all branches, and all kinds of backgrounds peppered the park. After having the experiences in the last few days, I felt compelled to meet every veteran I saw. What I recognized as age differences and dissimilar experiences melted away in the ranks of my new brothers. I saw this happening all around me on a large scale. I knew everyone there that day. I walked around alone, but I was in the company of family. Not too long 10
ago, I could have been in a crowd of people, but felt completely alone. Not that day. It was truly Veterans Day. I circled the grounds and returned to the wall. I saw the wreaths in a line, which had been moved away from the wall face and placed neatly on the other side of the path. The pictures of my departed friends were carefully repositioned against the black granite and they drew me closer. I could have sworn they had been calling to me so I could come over and say good bye. That was tough, but that is what I heard them say. Letting them go was very tough.
I found a couple of others from my group and we slowly began collecting more. We met back at the bus and gave our farewells to the memorial. Like after a cleansing rain, my spirit was refreshed. The tears of the day, like the rain, seemed to have washed away a long period of grief and loss. I breathed. A page was turned as Tony started the charter and drove us away to our next destination. The rest of the afternoon was light and allowed for plenty of reflection. We went to the Marine Corps exchange and saw the back side of Arlington. I continued to be amazed by how the district was assembled. The solemn shadow of the earlier services lifted a little as many of us began to laugh. By the time we finished our afternoon and headed back to the hotel, the mood had turned from sorrowful remembrance to good old fashioned cavorting. These were some really cool guys.
After another good dinner at the Doubletree Hotel, we embarked on our last visit to the Vietnam Memorial. When we arrived, the crowds had long since dispersed and all of the articles left in memoriam were respectfully placed against the wall with care. It was night now and everything seemed at peace. The wreaths were still present and stood watch over the wall for the remainder of the night. The soft glow from the lighting against the memorial seemed to signal the peaceful end to a very full day. I walked up to where I placed my photographs from earlier and they were still there. I did not know exactly what I was feeling, but I remember clearly saying aloud, “God I miss you” to Justin, Scotty, and Eric. It was over. I slowly turned and tearfully walked back to where Tony had stationed the bus. This part of the journey was complete.
Operation Freedom Bird wreath on display
Friday morning, November 12th, 2010. It was our last day of Operation Freedom Bird. I reviewed the Journey in my mind and saw that we really had done a lot. There were four separate visits to the Vietnam Memorial, one stop at the Pentagon, a tour of Arlington National Cemetery, great seats for the Marine Corps Birthday celebration and participation in the Veterans Day ceremonies at the wall. We met more important people (not just dignitaries) than I can recall. We had seven meals together so far and we saw a great deal of our great nation’s capital. The most important thing about this journey had been that I believe we found some kind of sense of peace. Perhaps it was in the form of new friendships. Maybe it was re-discovering what it felt like to be part of a unit again. I believe much of it was found after digging deep, finding the courage to come to terms with parts of the past and letting go of the trauma we had bonded with for far too long. I packed my luggage and felt some sadness about having to leave. One last breakfast and we loaded Tony’s tour bus for the last portion of the journey. Before we travelled to the airport, we traveled through downtown D.C. Tony sure knew his way around and was a great guide. He transported us up to the capitol building where we huddled together for a photo. Again, the weather was perfect and this marked the last stop prior to our return to Phoenix. It was a fitting place to finish Washington D.C. as the 11
proud building stood as the backdrop for this great group. Somewhere in this atmosphere I understood perhaps why so many people had made so many sacrifices. This is the center of the greatest country on the planet and I was proud to be there.
The United States Capitol Building
We left our nation’s capital and headed for the airport. I believe most of us could leave some of the past there and I know some of my anxiety disappeared with the shrinking images in Tony’s rear view mirrors. Ticketing and screening went by flawlessly at the airport and we waited for our flight in the terminal. This group had certainly developed as evidenced by the interaction we had at this end of the journey. Conversations and jokes were being shared in the comfort of our new companionship. Once again, we loaded an airplane and filled in from the back. The passengers in the front of this sold out flight got to know some of us in the terminal, but an announcement was made to let the uncertain travelers know who we were. The flight was uneventful except for the clowning of a few and the reflections of us all. I somehow slept for some of the flight and awoke about an hour outside of Phoenix. I did not know how things would be now. The sensation was similar to the flight home in 2006 when I was not sure how I was going to handle post deployment life challenges. I had a new set of beliefs and experiences I wanted to use in my continuing recovery process.
I have been living in Arizona long enough to recognize several landmarks from the air and was even able to see the apartment I used to live in along the final approach. Phoenix never felt as much like home as we touched down. As we taxied to the arrival terminal, Southwest Airlines was not done with their tribute. The pilot announced our arrival and welcomed all of the passengers to Sky Harbor International Airport. He stayed on the intercom and extended a very special welcome home to Operation Freedom Bird. He continued to speak as we neared the gate and passed the gratitude of a grateful community along to all of us veterans. His final announcement included drawing the attention of all onboard to both sides of the aircraft. The Phoenix fire department had stationed two of their engines along the path of our flight. As we rolled closer, the fire engines powered up their pumps and with emergency lights flashing, created an airborne aquatic arch for us to pass under. The pilot wanted to extend the “thank you for your service” message along on behalf of Phoenix’s finest. No more air could have been sucked out of the plane if we had lost cabin pressure midflight. This salute was breath taking.
Once we actually stopped, we waited for all of our brothers to collect their belongings from inside the airplane and we began to walk up the ramp. Southwest Airlines employees, the passengers awaiting departing flights and everyone else in the terminal at Sky Harbor were on their feet. Applause once again filled the space and the overwhelming feeling of a proud nation was on display. Flags were flying, signs were being held up, and there were more people wanting to give hugs or handshakes than any of us could receive. I know every one of the participants in Operation Freedom Bird felt Welcomed Home. They deserved this. We all did, including the patriotic people who had the opportunity to do the welcoming. This was the spirit of a proud nation- right here at home.
We were then told that our bags were being taken to a hangar for the ease of recovering them away from the other airport traffic. Two city busses transported us to another side of Sky Harbor and we offloaded. A short 12
time later, we were instructed to enter the hangar. There was nothing that could have prepared any of us for what was about to take place. The entire hangar was adorned with red, white, and blue balloons. There were posters and signs and streamers everywhere. The hangar was a packed theater with cheering family members, support, friends, and everyone involved with Operation Freedom Bird. There was a stage prepared and a section of seating right in front for the veterans coming home. I saw people there at this homecoming I had not expected to see. The Vet Center had come through in “Keeping the Promise” by making all of the visitor arrangements with both Southwest Air and the airport. The people there for me were some of the most influential people in my life and were not present when I returned from war; I had not known most of them back then. This spectacle- this celebration- can only be described as awesome.
As we sat in our seats, cake and cookies were handed out to everyone. The stage cycled through a couple of key people who either helped make this possible or gave their selfless support for this operation. Kind words and others of encouragement lifted the attitude inside the hangar to a star spangled high. I know many of the veterans never experienced anything remotely close. I was so glad to see we had developed bonds strong enough so we were comfortable expressing our emotions publicly as my eyes welled up with tears. Phoenix was not the only home of patriots present that day. We were surprised when Jackie Thompson, a Southwest representative, announced a special guest. On his way home to Nashville, Tennessee, a platinum award winning country super star heard about what was happening. He got off his flight, sent his crew ahead without him and he made arrangements to catch up on the next plane. Aaron Tippin graced all of us with an unplanned acoustic set to express his gratitude and thanks to our nation’s brave warriors of the past. It was almost too much to believe.
The ceremony continued as we observed the Air Force color guard display the colors and listened to a pristine bugler. One other moving performance was done by Jesse McGuire. He paid tribute to our sacrifices and service with a powerful story of his own commitment to this country. He had lost his two brothers in Vietnam and he is a dedicated patriot. He then played a trumpet version of America the Beautiful that left the audience silent. After a respectful moment, the crow rose to their feet and applauded the performance of a great American. The hundreds of people in that hangar had an experience that day that rivaled any Independence Day celebration I have ever attended. It was a finale to a journey that was truly healing for more than just the veterans. I was very proud to be an American. Final farewells were issued as the formalities came to a close. While the hangar emptied, it reminded me a little of how I felt. I was nervous from the start of the journey when Loraine asked me to participate. I did not know if I would even be able to go, but as it turned out, several people from my Yellow Ribbon office were present at the welcome home ceremony. During the time in Washington, I was filled with ranging emotions and now, as the people were leaving, so were my anxieties. The decorations remained in the hanger as I left just as the new hope I had for myself and others stayed with me. It dawned on me later that night that I had not turned to look back at the adorned hangar. Often I take one last look at memorable situations so I can mentally take a picture of where I had been. I guess I had seen enough of the past and now it was time to continue to move forward.
Special thanks and gratitude to:
Southwest Airlines CO., Southwest Airlines Well Being Committee c/o Jackie Thompson, Arizona Vet Centers, Dr. Robert Frame, Ken Benckwitz, Joseph Little, Anthony Stanisci, Joseph Rhoads, Patrick Lynch, all of those who are part of the Operation Freedom Bird Operation and the amazing contributions and efforts by all of the selfless sponsors of this healing journey.
Thank you to ALL of the brave veterans who made this journey, and Welcome Home.