Vietnam veteran Jack Poitras had his mind made up. Government shutdown or not, he would visit the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., on his Franklin County Honor Flight trip this past Wednesday, Oct. 2.
Many area veterans felt the same way. It is their right to visit the memorials built in their honor, and they agreed that they would “fight” for that honor, they said.
Poitras said he took a stance and told others, “I’m going to The Wall if I have to crawl there. I’m willing to go to jail for this. Nobody is big enough or strong enough to stop me.”
He said that as a disabled veteran in ailing health, he wasn’t sure if he would ever have another chance to visit the nation’s capital.
“I may not live another year,” he said.
During the trip, Poitras, of Barnhart, fulfilled his dream of playing taps at the Arlington National Cemetery and said he got the closure he had been seeking since he returned home from the Vietnam war 43 years ago. He also played at the Vietnam memorial.
“After I played I turned around and I saluted The Wall from one end to the other end,” he said. “I saw names of people who served with me in Vietnam pop out of The Wall. That’s how powerful it was for me.”
He lost more than 200 members of his unit from 1968-70.
Poitras, who volunteers to play taps at military funerals at Jefferson Barracks, played taps a total of six times during his trip.
Honor Flight flies local World War II, Korean War and other veterans for a day trip to Washington, D.C. Veterans visit the various memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery.
Veterans said they weren’t sure what to expect when they reached Washington, D.C.
With the government shutdown Oct. 1, federal parks were among the first thing slated to be closed.
“They tried to lock us out of the memorials,” said Glennon Stelzer, a Korean War veteran from Augusta. “Us being fighters, we went around the fences (or barricades) and saw what we wanted to see anyway.”
Stelzer said he didn’t have much time to worry about the shutdown, as the airline tickets had already been bought.
Another veteran agreed.
“I’m 90. I’m too old to worry,” said Richard Dillon, a World War II veteran from Washington.
“I thought I fought once, I can fight again,” said Leonard Unnerstall, a Korean War veteran from Villa Ridge,
One positive aspect of the shutdown was that there were a lot of lawmakers to greet veterans at the memorial.
Dillon and others said they were honored to shake hands with several of the lawmakers.
He spent the day reiterating one point to journalists, who were in abundance and asking for comments throughout the day.
“I’m not ashamed to say it again. The congressmen and senators need to go out and get a dictionary and look up the word ‘negotiate,’ ” he said. “Somebody should teach President Obama too, and I think we’d have a better government.”
Don Schulte, a Korean War veteran from Dutzow, said that “other than the restrooms” everything was pretty much open to veterans.
He said that everyone should visit Washington, D.C., once in their lifetime.
Don Unnerstall, a Korean War veteran from Union, called the trip exciting.
He especially enjoyed visiting Arlington Cemetery, a sentiment many of the veterans also shared.
And while Don Unnerstall said he feels like he was only doing his job in the service, the saying “Land of the free, because of the brave” rings true.
Many also enjoyed watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.
Many of the veterans said they enjoyed getting letters from schoolchildren.
Leonard Unnerstall, who spent 13 months on the front lines during the Korean War, said that while he enjoyed the trip, he wished there would have been employees there to hand out pamphlets with the history of the memorials and that the veterans could have gotten closer to the White House.
Skip Boland, a Korean War veteran from Washington, said that it was a shame that others couldn’t visit the memorial.
All veterans expressed thanks to the Franklin County Honor Flight organizers, those who greeted the veterans at the airport, the bus company, those who escorted the bus to and from the airport, children who wrote letters, lawmakers who took time out of their day to be at the memorials and those who were escorts on the trip.
“They did a first-class job,” Boland said.
Organizers also enjoyed the flight.
“It was the best day of my life,” said Jim Tayon, president of the Franklin County Honor Flight.