Keep celebrating the good life & great stories and supporting local businesses
Subscribe today to have Macon Magazine delivered to your home
Vietnam veteran and Perry, Georgia resident Randall Pettyjohn on an April 2019 MGHF Mission. Photo courtesy of MGHF.

Middle Georgia Honor Flight Mission 15: Righting a 50-Year Wrong

Story and photos by Jami Gaudet

 

“Today I was somebody”

Those heartbreaking words from Ron Cooley, one of 16 Vietnam veterans with whom I experienced Middle Georgia Honor Flight Mission 15, stopped me in my tracks. 

Today, nearly 50 years post-Vietnam War, it’s hard to imagine such shameful treatment of American soldiers when they returned home from battle. They were kids fighting a controversial war in an unfamiliar land. They didn’t necessarily understand or agree with the politics or the policies surrounding the Vietnam War, but they courageously fulfilled their patriotic duty. Yet when they returned, they weren’t welcomed home as heroes. No parades, no fanfare, nothing. If anything, these veterans were often met with scorn and distrust.

The glory of war is the stuff of Hollywood, not real life, and there is often an unrealistic expectation that upon returning home, veterans can snap back into civilian life. But war changes those who serve. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychological manifestations of war, including emotional scars, can last a lifetime. 

Over several decades America awoke to the fact that our Vietnam servicemen and women sacrificed their youth, their innocence, and for a monstrous 58,281 soldiers – 2.7% of that generation – their lives.

The Honor Flight Network’s origin

When the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. opened in 2004, a physician’s assistant in a small Ohio veteran affairs office, Ed Morse, was captivated. Many of his patients were WWII veterans; Morse saw firsthand how age, illness, and finances might prevent veterans from traveling to view the memorial.

Morse wanted to change that. A retired Air Force Captain, private pilot, and Aero Club member, Morse personally flew one of his patients to D.C. to visit it. The trip was such a success that he duplicated the journey with other patients. The veterans’ emotional reactions inspired Morse to partner with more Aero Club members for more trips.

What began in 2005 as a singular experience for one World War II veteran became the national Honor Flight Network (HFN) that today includes veterans of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, and terminally ill veterans of any age and war, who journey to Washington on commercial jets. Increasingly, as World War II and Korean War veterans pass away, flight manifests are filled predominantly with Vietnam War veterans. 

The HFN mission is “to celebrate America’s veterans with a day of honor at our nation’s memorials, experiencing the honor, gratitude, and community support they deserve.” 

Now more than 275,000 veterans have traveled to Washington – for what many call one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives – through more than 135 programs in 45 states and Puerto Rico. 

Middle Georgia Honor Flight 

Locally, the Middle Georgia Honor Flight (MGHF) was co-founded in 2018 by Vietnam veterans Roger Jennings and Bob Long. The pair serve as president and vice-president of MGHF. Like the national organization, MGHF is a 501(c)(3) served entirely by volunteers. 

One of four Honor Flight hubs in Georgia, MGHF serves 69-plus counties with a veteran population of more than 128,000 and conducts six Honor Flights annually, on three Saturdays in the spring and fall. 

Bob Long served in the Air Force and continues to work in foreign military sales. For Long, providing these trips is an extension of the military credo “no man left behind.” Long said, “Our veterans made so many sacrifices for our country, and we know that freedom isn’t free. This work with veterans is addictive.” 

Mission 15

Mission 15 members before departing from Macon.

Two weeks before our trip, MGHF conducted training in Warner Robins. Veterans checked in, and if not traveling with a family member or friend, met their assigned travel companion, called a guardian. 

Bob Long went over logistics, and guardians received instructions on how to support their veteran, including the directive to “stay within an elbow’s length at all times.” Logo-emblazoned t-shirts were distributed (blue for veterans, yellow for guardians) so they would be instantly recognizable to each other while touring. 

Each mission is unique, and ours was noteworthy on several fronts. Young by Honor Flight standards, all 16 participants were Vietnam veterans, including Ben Everly, who also served in Korea. Our veterans represented four service branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and ranged in age from 72 to 89. 

Two veterans had served in two military branches, Robert Byrd in the Army and Air Force, and Ron McCooley in the Navy and Air Force. 

For the second time aboard a MGHF, there was a couple, Chief Master Sergeant George Parker and his highly decorated wife, Technical Sergeant Raisa Parker, both of whom also served in Lebanon, Panama, and Grenada. 

Also aboard was author J.C. Hilliard who penned a 2014 book, Tour of Duty: 13 Months in Vietnam, in memory of five “brothers” with whom he served in the Marines. J.C. was present when each man was killed, and he brought an inscribed copy of his book to leave at the Vietnam Memorial in their honor and memory. 

Bill Carey, who has performed the song “Taps” at more than 200 events, including military funerals at Andersonville National Cemetery, brought his trumpet to play the emotionally charged tune at the Vietnam Memorial. 

Takeoff from Macon

May 20, 2023 was a long day with an ambitious schedule and was, coincidentally, Armed Forces Day. We gathered at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport for our Contour Airlines charter flight #3107 at 6:30 a.m. to Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). 

Patriotism loomed large from the get-go. Upon arrival we were met by a team of local MGHF volunteers who distributed Operation Gratitude bags filled with snacks and sunscreen. MGHF chaplain, Joseph Moore, a guardian for the day and local pastor, led us in prayer, and we took group photos under the terminal’s huge American flag. 

Pre-dawn, we cleared TSA (quick, easy, and pleasant in Macon!) before boarding a sleek 30-passenger jet for the 1.5-hour flight to Baltimore.

MGHF president, Roger Jennings, served as flight commander and Bernadette Johnson as bus captain. The effervescent Johnson is Contour’s Macon station manager. The proud daughter of a retired naval officer, with two servicewomen sisters, she says these flights are her way of giving back. 

Every mission is staffed with a nurse, in case medical attention is needed, and a media representative, my role in preparation for this story. 

Our flight was staffed by a crew of three: Captain Kyle Campbell, First Officer Lisa Hannon, and Robin Prince, our flight attendant, who served breakfast biscuits during the flight, courtesy of Contour.

MGHF included every amenity; the attention to detail was extraordinary. Wheelchairs were provided for every veteran, whether they required one or “just in case” while trekking around our nation’s capital. There were lap blankets for cold; umbrellas for rain; breakfast, lunch, and dinner were included; and bottled water and snacks were always at-the-ready. 

Star treatment

As we touched down at BWI under dense fog, we were instructed to look out the windows on both sides of the plane where our flight was welcomed with a water cannon salute courtesy of the BWI fire department.

At the gate our veterans were warmly greeted by six active-duty military volunteers from Ft. Meade who completed our roster of guardians, and with whoops, handshakes, and applause from two smiling groups bedecked in stars and stripes — Clinton, Maryland Rotary Club members and the Kappa Epsilon Psi Military Sorority, Inc., with two adorable boys hoisting homemade welcome signs. 

Passersby approached veterans throughout the day to thank them for their service.

It was the first of many times that day the vets would hear the long-delayed words, “Welcome home! Thank you for your service!” 

As the Rotarians and sorority scurried off to greet another arriving Honor Flight, USO volunteers materialized to lead us to our bus for the hour-long ride to Washington, sporting neon Honor Flight Ground Crew T-shirts with the Will Rogers slogan, “We can’t all be heroes; some of us get to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” 

As we departed BWI, the sorority reappeared alongside our bus, smiling, saluting, and waving flags.

Arlington National Cemetery 

Our first stop was Arlington National Cemetery for the solemn Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, where a sentinel has been on duty every minute since 1937. Our group had prime viewing for the Ceremony, and during our arrival and departure (and throughout the day), people spontaneously reached out to shake hands with our veterans. 

Afterward, as we gathered our veterans and guardians for a photo at the steps of Arlington’s amphitheater, a high school teacher leading a group of teens from Muncie, Indiana called out a surprising request. “Can our students join the veterans for a picture?” As we were set to snap the photo, the teacher called out, “Welcome home! I’m indebted to you for my freedom!” 

Military Women’s Memorial 

Local MGHF organizers figured that having a female veteran on our flight warranted a visit to the Military Women’s Memorial, which honors 300,000 servicewomen. 

There, retired Technical Sgt. USAF Raisa Parker was given a certificate for her distinguished service by the Memorial’s Chief Impact Officer, Cathleen Pearl, during Raisa’s profile presentation. The quiet, unassuming Parker was the first female member of the security police to join the mountain patrol at Clark Air Base, Philippines (1977-78). 

Called a true trailblazer, Raisa had won the Air Force Commendation Medal, AF Outstanding Unit Award, Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, AF Overseas Short, NCO and Long Tour Ribbons, AF Longevity Service Award, Professional Military Education Graduate Ribbon, Small Arms Marksmanship Ribbon, and AF Training Ribbon. 

Dazzled by her wide-ranging accomplishments, after the presentation the Mission 15 group surrounded and warmly congratulated our star. I later learned that the visit to the Women’s Memorial was so well-received that it will become a stop on future MGHF missions.

U.S. Marine Corps Memorial and World War II Memorial

Gloomy skies gave way to bright sunshine, and we devoured box lunches in the park surrounding the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, the iconic, bronze depiction of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the second flag raising at Iwo Jima during WWII. 

After lunch we traveled to the National Mall to see the World War II Memorial, the original impetus of the Honor Flight movement. We fanned out to view the Atlantic and Pacific arches and 56 pillars representing U.S. states and territories, each adorned with a stone wreath. Everyone enjoyed taking a photo at their home state pillar and getting a WWII National Park Service Passport Stamp on our flight IDs. 

At the WWII Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial 

Called a park within a park, the Vietnam Memorial was created to “begin the healing process and forever stand as a symbol of our national unity.” Unsurprisingly, this stop, the pinnacle of our trip, unleashed a torrent of emotions.  

Upon our arrival at the two-acre site, we photographed the 16 Vietnam veterans in front of a lesser-known element of the Memorial, a bronze statue entitled “Three Servicemen.”  Immediately afterward, Bill Carey raised his trumpet to his lips and played “Taps,” and everyone in the immediate area halted in reverence. 

Bill Carrey emotionally prepares to trumpet “Taps” at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in honor of his brothers and sisters in service.

Bill told me later that he had originally chosen another place to play the iconic bugle song, facing the Wall some 200 feet away, but after the photo, he spontaneously said to himself, “This is the spot. We’re all together, and I feel comfortable with the guys. So I closed my eyes, began to play. And even though I was nervous, I felt great relief as I played. That was my mission, to play ‘Taps’ at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and I did it.” 

At this spot the Mission 15 veterans each received a Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin from the Vietnam War Commemoration organization. The pins are to be given to all veterans on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces between November 1, 1955 and May 15, 1975 and will be distributed through 2025, the 50th anniversary of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 

We silently walked the short distance to the Wall where two of our veterans, Maconites Herb Greenwald and Stewart Brown,  serendipitously recognized the docent, Dan Moore, with whom they served in the Fifth Marine, second Battalion more than 50 years ago. The three had a joyful reunion before Moore began to explain how the wall lists the names of all 58,281 Americans who were killed, chronologically, and with those whom they perished. 

The reflective black marble Memorial begins at a height of 8 inches, and is 10 feet, three inches at its zenith. Built on a gentle slope, visitors begin walking its length at ground level, descend below it and ascend back to ground level. Moore described it as a descent into hell at the lowest point, where the names of the dead tower above visitors. 

Originally as controversial as the War itself, Maya Lin’s minimalistic memorial today is among Washington’s most popular memorials, attracting more than five million visitors annually. 

More than 400,000 personal items have been left at the at the base of the Wall. And there, between a large Ziplock bag containing a single red rose and another holding a letter and a child’s drawing, guardian Robbie Elaine Hilliard, a nurse at the Dublin VA Medical Center, placed the inscribed copy of her father J.C. Hilliard’s book, Tour of Duty, 13 Months in Vietnam, under his watchful eye. 

The book’s inscription reads, “This book which I wrote is left here in memory of these brothers who I was with when they died,” CPL Ronald Dobbs; PFC Edward Masters; LCPL Gurney Len Miller; LCPL Dean Edward Nicholas; Sgt. Clifford Dan William.” 

J.C. Hilliard and his daughter left a copy of his book, Tour of Duty, at the base of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall under the names of the brothers he lost in battle.

J.C. Hilliard also brought a handwritten list of 11 names and their locations on the Wall on his personalized Wounded Warrior stationery. His relationship with these 11 men dates to their earliest days in the Marines Corps at basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. 

Together, father and daughter set to work paying tribute to his buddies, he calling out the names, and she, with paper and pencil, dutifully creating rubbings on the cool black granite.

Nearby, James Broach (Army) and Russell Curry (Navy), Jones County High School graduates and neighbors, also created rubbings and took photographs, and I took one of them pointing to the name Robert W. Jenkins, to honor a schoolmate who served in the Marines. 

After exploring the entirety of the Wall, we proceeded past the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Authorized by separate legislation and dedicated to the nurses and women who served in Vietnam, it depicts three uniformed women caring for a bandaged soldier.

Lincoln Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial 

We reboarded the bus for a mid-afternoon stop at the Lincoln and Korean War Veterans Memorials. Spring sunshine brought out crowds in Washington, and the perennially popular Lincoln Memorial was jammed with visitors on the steps and within the chamber where our 16th president is enshrined. 

The steep steps were too difficult for most of our group, but they were content to view the imposing memorial from below with its breathtaking view of the Washington Monument, its iridescent image shimmering in the length of the Reflecting Pool.   

We fanned out and hiked to the intriguing Korean War Veterans Memorial — 19 seven-foot statues resembling U.S. military personnel in action; a serene Pool of Remembrance; and Mural Wall with 2,500 haunting photographic images subtly sandblasted onto a black granite wall. A Wall of Remembrance was added in 2022. 

FDR Memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial 

Our next stop paired visits to the memorials of an iconic president and the titan of the civil rights movement. Enormous in size and scale, the 7.5-acre Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial consists of four outdoor rooms, each representing one term of the 32nd president’s 12 years in office. Here we shared light-hearted moments as I photographed some of the veterans standing beside the president seated in his wheelchair. 

Set on 4 acres, the imposing white granite Stone of Hope statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., visible at night, awes — a giant of a memorial for a giant of a man. The 450-foot-long inscription wall features excerpts from some of Dr. King’s most important speeches, sermons, and writings, and according to the National Park Service, captures his focus on justice, democracy, hope, and love. 

Slightly ahead of schedule, we had a little time to cruise around the city with our spry, intrepid guide, Rosemary Bozo, pointing out the sites and impressing us with her insider knowledge of our nation’s capital. We paused briefly at the Eisenhower Memorial and the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial before our final stop. 

United States Navy Memorial 

We arrived at the U.S. Navy Memorial right on schedule at 4:30 p.m., where we picnicked on the sprawling plaza featuring The Lone Sailor statue and the Granite Sea, a giant map of the world’s oceans. Before heading back to BWI to catch our flight back to Macon, we briefly toured the Navy Memorial Visitors Center honoring the men and women who served in the Navy, USMC, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. 

Mail call and cake

Despite the beautiful weather, our flight was delayed by a 30-minute ground stop for area storms. But once underway, it was a smooth flight home, with a dual surprise: “mail call” and cake. 

MGHF had arranged for family, friends, scout troops, and middle schools to submit cards and letters to the veterans. A personal bag of mail was delivered to each one, simulating mail call when soldiers heard from home during their days of service. 

Mail call aboard Mission 15 Honor Flight return trip.

Robin, our flight attendant, further sweetened the moment, serving thick slices of caramel or chocolate layer cake to everyone aboard, her personal contribution to every Honor Flight she works.

Despite advance notice of mail call, I fought back tears watching our veterans savor every last correspondence and bite of cake. 

Before landing I walked the length of the plane, taking photos of each veteran and their guardian, their grins a mile wide, so they could remember this extraordinary moment, and I could too.

Middle Georgia Honor Flight maintains a website where participants are invited to share their photos of the day. I uploaded 458 photos and 14 videos. 

Hero’s welcome at home

Upon touching down in Macon around 9:40 p.m., our Mission 15 group was held in the boarding area until everyone had disembarked, and then — the finale and ultimate surprise, the heroes’ welcome that eluded Vietnam veterans a half-century ago.

Approximately 100 people packed the terminal. In a booming voice, MGHF board member and Georgia Radio Hall of Fame inductee, Ben Sandifer, introduced them with, “WELCOME HOME!”

The Mission 15 group receives a warm welcome home after their trip to Washington.

The last of many tear-filled moments that day, a roar erupted as each veteran was wheeled or walked through the terminal, greeted with wild applause, cheers, handshakes, and hugs from the throng of adults and children, family and friends, all waving flags and signs, who had gathered to top off this singular day. 

“Welcome home!” A half-century later those two simple words pack a punch, countering the indifference and disrespect Vietnam veterans in America weathered upon returning home. 

To see and hear the reactions of the men and one woman on MGHF 15 during our 16-hour adventure was to get some sense of how profoundly America failed the young men and women whom they sent to fight in Vietnam. 

When asked about his passion for the MGHF program Sandifer said, “I didn’t serve, but have great respect for those who did. This is my way of serving, but I don’t know if any Honor Flight could ever make things up to our veterans.”   

Roger Jennings, MGHF co-founder added, “It’s so gratifying to be with the veterans when they see their memorial, or when someone thanks them for their service, and it gives me great joy to see the veterans’ responses at the welcome home. Of the 200-plus veterans who we’ve taken on our 15 flights, I still meet with some and have formed lasting relationships.” 

We left Macon as strangers on that bleak Saturday morning and returned as friends after an intense, emotional day. According to Priya Parker in her book, The Art of Gathering, there’s an expression derived from an 16th century Japanese tea master: “Ichigo ichie,” roughly translated, “one meeting, one moment in your life that will never happen again.” Middle Georgia Honor Flight Mission 15 was just such a moment.

Want to go? Visit middlegahonorflight.org to book a Flight as a veteran, sign up to be a Guardian, or sponsor the program. Submit your photo from the Flight to be in a future Macon Magazine Faces gallery. 

Find Upcoming Honor Flights

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest content first.

We respect your privacy.