Hundreds of Franklin County veterans have had the opportunity to take an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., over the past several years, but a group that traveled to the nation’s capital Saturday got an unexpected bonus.
One of the lucky vets on this trip was Washington Fire Chief Bill Halmich, who, along with his years of fire service, is also a veteran of the Vietnam War.
The day began as many other trips with a flight from St. Louis to Baltimore, where the vets were to be bused to the National Mall to view the Vietnam, Korean and World War II and other memorials.
“We deplaned in Baltimore and were told we were waiting for another Honor Flight to land from New York,” Halmich said. “The Baltimore police would then escort us all in to D.C. together.”
He added while he and a few others were helping wheelchair-bound veterans they were approached by a Vietnamese lady in the terminal.
“We were all wearing name tags and she was asking us if we fought in Vietnam,” Halmich said. “She told us her father had been killed by the Viet Cong when she was a little girl and if it wasn’t for the American G.I.s she and the rest of her family would have been killed too.”
Halmich estimated the woman was in her 50s or 60s and as she talked to the veterans in the airport she was sobbing.
After talking with the men she gave each one a hug and then was off with her male companion to catch their plane.
Halmich said he asked the flight organizer if the encounter had been planned and he assured the men it was completely random and unexpected.
With his emotions already primed, Halmich and the others headed to see the Vietnam Wall memorial.
“This was the first time I had ever seen the real wall in person,” Halmich said. “I was involved with fund-raising for it when they first built it, but that is all.”
Halmich said he had three major observations about the wall that made him reflect on his time in country and the observations others have made about the war in the years since.
“In war it is always important to have the high ground,” he said. “My first observation was the wall was built in a ravine. The lower you go below grade, the more names of casualties there are.”
His second observation of the memorial was the size and construction.
“All of the other memorials are highly visible and made with huge stones,” he said. “The Vietnam memorial is very subdued. At its thickest point, the wall is only about 2 inches thick. I think it represents the lack of support we had while we were there fighting it.”
His third observation about the memorial is that the names of the dead seem to be lost within one another, much like the veterans of the war and their memories were lost to the nation.
“I thought the names would be bigger,” Halmich said. “Instead they tend to mash together, just like the price that was paid.”
The trip overall for Halmich was a reiteration of what he and his fellow veterans did in the past and what the current Armed Forces members and their families are continuing today.
“No matter what war it is, they do their duty,” Halmich said. “The Honor Flight puts that into perspective. It makes us feel that no matter when we fought, we were fighting for the right thing.”
Thirty-four veterans went on the trip Saturday, including 25 Vietnam veterans, eight Korean War veterans and one World War II veteran.
“As one of the leaders organizing these trips for veterans to see their memorials over the past 10 years, I’ve learned to be prepared for the unexpected, that emotions run at a peak and top out between veterans on the trip and the people they encounter along the way,” said Jim Tayon of Franklin County Honor Flight.
“Saturday, we had a fleeting and incredible encounter that was superlative in many ways and epitomizes the respect our veterans deserve for the cause of freedom.”
As is always the case, when the veterans disembarked their plane into the Baltimore Washington International Airport concourse they were met by a throng of people showing their patriotic appreciation by clapping, waving flags, shaking hands and giving hugs to the veterans as they arrived.
“Despite the fact she was one of hundreds I was attracted to her as though she was under a spotlight in the crowd. As I approached her I heard her comment to a passerby that she was Vietnamese. Admittedly, I was already primed with peak emotion after having just watched the PBS weeklong series documenting the Vietnamese War — the Communist disregard for life and the American progressive involvement as advisers to combatants protecting the people.
“Presuming the man with her to be her husband, I asked, ‘Sir, if I were to ask your wife what did the American presence in Vietnam mean to her, what would she say’?
“I’ll tell you what she’d say, it would be, ‘I wouldn’t be alive if they had not been there’,” the woman said.
Tayon said by this time she was in the conversation and he put his arm around her and asked if he could take her picture with a group of Vietnam War veterans.
“She gave me a tearful yes and I led her to the group,” he said.