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I caught the last few minutes of your Honor Flight program. I wrote this after I went on the Honor Flight. Hope you like it.
I Am Not A Hero
I just returned from Honor Flight #59. So much happened in such a short time that, even now, over a week later, I am still decompressing. I was completely overwhelmed physically, mentally, and emotionally. I compare it to opening an eight ounce bottle of water and then filling three gallon hugs from that single small bottle.
I was a little embarrassed, person after person kept grabbing my hand, shaking it, and calling me “hero.” This was something that happened constantly during the trip. For example, I was trying to take a picture of the Washington Monument when I tripped over a little fellow (I am not sure who ran into whom.). I did not fall but I dropped my camera and it broke. His dad offered me a business card and he offered to buy me a new one. I refused and told him the only important thing was the little boy was unhurt. He grabbed my hand, shook it with some vigor and said, ” I have always wanted to shake the hand of a real hero! ”
I just stood there silence because I have never considered myself a hero. I have not earned any great medals of valor, no purple hearts, nothing to indicate I was part of a war, except for the three medals they gave to everyone just for being there. I was, as one would say in army slang, an R.E.M.F. It is an accurate, even if slightly derogatory term. I have no tales of courage to share with you. As a matter of fact, I only spent one night in a bunker behind a Browning Automatic Rifle because of enemy actions. Even then, I never had to fire my weapon. I did not even join the army because of any sense of duty. I joined because I was about to be drafted and I wanted to pick my own job in the army. So if you are looking for a real hero, I am not the one you need to seek out.
I do know some real heroes. The people on the wall are heroes, but most of us would have a hard time trying to talk to them. So the question remains, who should you talk to if you want to talk to a real hero?
If you want to talk to a real hero, you could talk to the men who went out into the field day after day. These men witnessed misery and displayed more courage than most people do in a lifetime. They fought the enemy face to face under conditions that most people do not want to really know about. They are often reluctant to talk about it, even among each other. They faced and overcame situations that would send Satan running in fear.
If you want to talk to a real hero, you could talk to the medics who went into the field with the brave soldiers. They faced the same perils and situations as the soldiers and still managed to save many lives.
If you want to talk to a real hero, you could talk to the helicopter crewmen. They flew into and out of very hostile LZ’s. It was not at all unusual for them to show up to rescue souls who should have been beyond rescuing.
If you want to talk to a real hero, you could talk to the former POW’s. These men endured harsh treatment and torture. Some of that treatment can barely be imagined and cannot be talked about in open company. If every one of the POW’s did not serve above and beyond the call of duty – I cannot think of anyone who did.
If you want to talk to a real hero, you could talk to the doctors and nurses who worked tirelessly 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to heal the wounded. These heroes saved people that would have died in any other war. It would be almost impossible to make a wall that contained all the names they managed to save.
If you want to talk to a real hero, you could talk to a good star family. They sent their loved ones to war and they never returned. Talk to the mother or father whose son or daughter is forever gone. Talk to the son or daughter who lost their parent. Talk to the spouse whose husband or wife is forever gone. These heroes were not even in the war zone, yet they gave everything they had.
Because I am not a hero by any measure I would use, I was hesitant to apply to go on the Honor Flight. I felt there were many others so much more deserving to go. After a great deal of prodding by my kids and grandkids, I filled out an application. I thought it would be nice to go see the Vietnam Memorial, but I was certain that with so many other veterans that were so much more deserving, I would probably not hear from them. I was a bit surprised to find out I was going.
As I prepared to go, I was not expecting very much. After all, the trip was not going to last even a full day. But I thought I might be able to visit the wall and I had no idea when I would be able to go to Washington on my own. When the time came I thought I was ready for everything. It is very seldom that I have been so very wrong about something as I was wrong in my expectations of the trip. So much happened that I do not know how long it will take me to process it all. I will pick two things that had the most effect on me.
First, I was never “in-country” – but I did have some friends on the wall. The first time I saw the traveling wall was in Jefferson City. Seeing all of those names and then finding the special names on the wall made me sad. I remember the times we had together and I knew we would never see each other again. Whenever the traveling wall was nearby I would go visit my friends. It was always a memorable and tearful experience. The traveling wall is all about the names.
The real wall is, however, so much different and so much more. The real wall is a black mirror with the names inscribed on it. When I reached out to touch the names of my friends, I saw my reflection on the wall. For an instant, I did not see my reflection – but my friends reaching for me. In that instant I realized the wall was not built for the friends we knew long ago – but the wall was made for the rest of us. That reflection made me realize everything we do is a reflection on our friends. The names cannot be changed, but we can change.
Looking to the side I saw the corner. That corner is a convergence of the past, the present and the future. The present, the path we are on, leads to that convergence. At the convergence, the reflection, which is the past we cannot change, leads off into the distance. The future, which we can change, also leads off into the distance. It doesn’t make any difference in which direction you enter the memorial, these elements do not change.
The memorial made me realize that the best way to honor our fallen friends is by living the best life we are able to do. We can stand up for what is right and not keep silent when we see wrong. We can everything in our to make sure no future generation of soldiers is treated the way we were treated when we got home. We can make sure we teach our children and their children the values we cherish so much. We can try and set such an example that anyone who finds out we were in the military will say to themselves, “I want to do what they did.”. This is exactly what our friends would have wanted us to do. With the lessons my friends taught me during that walk, I was able to say “Good-bye” to them for the first time. This gave me a peace I have not felt in many, many years. A stroll of less than five hundred feet felt like a journey of a hundred miles by the time I had finished.
Secondly, several short years ago people started saying “Welcome Home” to me. It felt so artificial. It was just a platitude, the proper thing to say that was devoid of any real meaning. Nothing had really changed. When I got out of the army the first time in Phoenix, Arizona, I was rejected by the local VFW – I was told I was not a real Vietnam Vet because I was never in country. My former friends rejected me because I had been the army, so I reenlisted. When I got out the second time, even the Missouri National Guard would not, as I was told, ” Let them be shoved down our throat. ” Even today, the VA considers me a second rate veteran, not entitled to all the benefits the real Vietnam Veterans receive. Because of this, I have been carrying around a great deal of resentment. This trip changed my feelings.
It started with the reception we got at the Reagan Airport. The entire airport was cheering for us! Not just one or two people, but every single person I saw! I was not sure I deserved such treatment, but that did not change the excitement I was feeling. I shook more hands from the plane to the busses than I have ever shook before.
Being escorted all over Washington was another step. It was amazing being escorted like that. I could hardly believe they were doing all of this just for us.
The next step was the mail call. The letters I got that day will always be cherished. They mean more than all the monuments combined.
The completion came in the ride from Kingdom City to the hotel. The reception at the hotel is forever etched in my memory. All of this made a change. “Welcome Home” was not just two random words anymore. Something happened here. For the first time ever, I really felt like I had really been welcomed home at last. A feeling I will never forget, the tinge of bitterness and resentment I had felt for decades was wiped away. It was wiped away because after so many, many long years. – I had finally come home for real.
Thank you for sharing James.