Ira Black and Darrell Gentry

When Darrell Gentry stepped off the plane from his trip to Washington, D.C., with the Franklin County Honor Flight on June 23, it had been 49 years since he had returned home from fighting in Vietnam.

The reception he received this time around couldn’t have been more different.

“The day I came home from Vietnam in 1969, they didn’t wave any flags or anything. They didn’t even know I was home,” said Gentry, noting it was a depressing experience, to say the least.

“I put it behind me,” he said. “It took a while, but I did . . . it feels like these Honor Flight trips are making up for a lot of that.”

Franklin County Honor Flight is nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices.

“We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials,” the website reads.

Part of a national program, Franklin County Honor Flight volunteers made their first trip to D.C. in November 2007 with seven World War II veterans. Since then, FCHF has planned more than 30 trips to D.C. and escorted more than 1,000 veterans to see their memorials.

The group plans several trips each year.

On each trip, every veteran is paired with a guardian who looks out for them on the daylong whirlwind trip from Missouri to D.C. and back. Gentry, on his trip, was paired with Ira Black, a senior at Washington High School who is in the JROTC program and planning to enlist in the Marines after graduation.

It was the first time an ROTC student had been invited to be a guardian, said Rosalie McGaugh, a board member for FCHF, but if more cadets are interested and capable, it may be something the group can continue with other flights.

The trip made an impression on Black, 17, who has wanted to join the military since he was just 6 years old.

Black, son of Sandy Schaefer, New Haven, has a long list of family members who have served the country, beginning with his father, the late Jerry Black, a Marine who fought in Vietnam, and was killed when Ira was just 4, and his maternal grandmother, Sandy Wilhelm, New Haven, who served in the Air Force during Desert Storm.

Black has heard stories of military service his whole life, which was pretty inspiring, he said. In his bedroom, he keeps the American flag that was presented to his mom at his father’s funeral. But none of that was what drove him to want to enlist.

“There was a spark in me that I gotta do this,” said Black, noting it’s just kind of in his blood.

“We go all the way back to Stonewall Jackson on my mom’s side,” he said.

Being a Guardian

As a teenager, Black didn’t know quite what to expect from the experience of being a guardian on the FCHF trip, and he admits there was a lot of work involved.

“But it was amazing,” he said.

The role of a guardian begins with meeting the veteran to gather information about his or her service.

“I had to interview him. I’ve never done that kind of thing before,” said Black, with a smile. “I had to ask about his service, where did you go, what years did you serve, what did you do, what was your job, were there any stories he wanted to tell . . .”

As a future Marine, Black also wanted to know about the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that the troops are given to eat.

Hearing about Gentry’s experience in Vietnam was eye-opening for Black, but nothing the veteran could have told him would have deterred him from wanting to serve himself.

“Those guys that went there, they did what they were supposed to do, and they got it done,” said Black. “If they didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be here . . . They did stuff that we couldn’t do, and I want to take their place.”

The day of the flight to D.C. begins early — in the middle of the night, actually.

Gentry said he woke at midnight to get to Mid-American Coaches for the ride to Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. Black said he opted just not to go to bed that night and caught quick cat naps on the airplane and bus.

On the trip, Black’s duty was to make sure Gentry had everything he needed and watch out for him throughout the day. This included getting him snacks and drinks, if he was ever hungry outside of the set meal time, and also making sure he was OK physically.

There’s a lot of walking on the trip, so some of the veterans need to rest at times or use a wheelchair to get around, Black explained.

The purpose of the trip is to see the war memorials built to honor the veterans’ service, and for both Gentry and Black, the Vietnam Wall was one of the most emotional to see.

“That was pretty intense,” said Black, noting that as they stood in front of the wall, Gentry shared stories of his experiences in Vietnam.

Together they searched for the names of two men Gentry served with who were killed in action. They couldn’t find one name, but the other, a man he had completed basic training with, they were able to find.

“He was killed in our first firefight on Good Friday, 1968,” said Gentry.

Prior to the honor flight, Gentry had never been to Washington, D.C., and had only seen the replica Vietnam Wall memorial when it came to Washington several years ago.

Standing in front of the real memorial brought back memories, he said.

Served in 22nd Infantry

Gentry grew up in Big Springs, north of Hermann. He was drafted into the Army Sept. 21, 1967, and arrived in Vietnam March 6, 1968. He served one year in Vietnam and completed his service at Fort Rucker, Ala. He was discharged Sept. 20, 1969.

Gentry was a sergeant in Company C, Third Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 25th Division.

In Vietnam, his job was radio communications specialist, infantry search and destroy, calling in air strikes and medics.

“I ran the radio telephone. I carried it. You can see it in my pictures on my back,” he said.

Gentry’s medals include a Good Conduct and Bronze Star, as well as a Silver Star “for gallantry in action” during a battle that began on Thanksgiving Eve in 1968. Gentry is credited with carrying the wounded to safety.

That battle is one of Gentry’s lasting memories of his service in Vietnam. He has clippings from issues of Stars and Stripes newspapers that outline what happened.

“We had a heavy firefight at 3 a.m. and we had a lot of casualities,” he said. “We were ambushed and had not much cover after the gunfight. We had a Thanksgiving dinner in the rain.”

Gentry still has a collection of Stars and Stripes newspapers from his days in Vietnam. He read the newspaper as often as he could find a copy while he was overseas.

‘It Took This Long to Get That’

Throughout the trip to D.C. in June, Gentry, like all of the veterans who went, was treated to applause, cheers and handshakes from total strangers. It was completely unexpected, he said, but also utterly uplifting.

“Every stop we made, they thanked us and applauded. They really gave us an honorable experience,” said Gentry. “It was a surprise. I didn’t figure on that.

“When we landed in St. Louis, walking through the tunnel (off the plane) and coming out, here’s all these people waving and all that . . . Well, I thought that’s all it would be. Then we got further on there, and this guy who played ‘Reveille’ and ‘Taps’ bugle calls. And I thought that’s all, but it keeps going. Headed out the door, and here they all are, cheering and waving signs.”

Gentry’s wife, Judy, who was at the airport in St. Louis waiting for him when the flight returned, agreed.

“When he came off the plane, it was very emotional,” she said. “We were all in tears — it’s very emotional for them.

“The Honor Flight, that really is the right word. They are so honored. I could cry right now at the thought of it,” she added. “We are so grateful to the Honor Flight. I would do anything to support them.”

“It took this long to get that,” said Gentry, but it felt wonderful.

Recommends Being a Guardian

Having a teenager for his guide on the trip worked out just fine, said Gentry. Despite their age difference, they got along well, and learned a few things about each other.

They both particularly enjoyed visiting Arlington National Cemetery to view the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and seeing where the Pentegon was hit on 9/11.

Black, who had never really known about Franklin County Honor Flight before serving as a guardian, said he recommends the experience for everyone, including his fellow ROTC cadets. He feels like the trip helped better prepare him for his upcoming service.

“It’s a great experience,” he remarked.

Black hasn’t officially enlisted yet. He’s still trying to decide what job he wants to pursue, although right now he’s leaning toward bomb disposals or special forces.

To learn more about the Franklin County Honor Flight, to make a donation or to get involved, go to www.fchonorflight.org.