Honor Flight Nevada brings healing to Vietnam veterans

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KOLO) At 4:00 in the morning on the Friday before Veterans Day, about 40 veterans gather at Reno-Tahoe International Airport about to embark on a journey. They know it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but they have no idea just how life changing the next 72 hours will be.

These veterans are participating in the last Honor Flight Nevada trip of 2017, and it's special for many reasons. Not only is it happening over Veterans Day weekend, but the group itself is unique. There are a few veterans who served in World War II and the Korean War, but the majority of the veterans served in Vietnam; the country's most vilified war.

For almost a generation, their service went unrecognized. But all that was about to change, starting at Baltimore–Washington International Airport. The veterans were greeted by current military members and cheers of thanks from fellow travelers.

"I was a little shocked," Donovan Stelzner, a Vietnam Navy veteran, said. "I got a little more than anticipated. It was a whole lot different than the last time. The last time was not the same."

That was just the beginning. Saturday morning, Veterans Day, the group was up early. After eating breakfast the veterans were ushered outside, where a bus was waiting to shuttle them around Washington, D.C. But it was the police escort that made the biggest impact. The veterans whooped and cheered as the motorcycle officer stopped traffic to get the veterans to their memorials as quickly as possible.

"I tell you, every time I turn around I'm getting surprised," Ken York, a World War Two Navy veteran, said. "The police escort, and the buses, and the veterans meeting us, I'm just so proud to be a part of it."

York is one of three WWII veterans on the trip. Honor Flight Nevada makes it a point to surprise the veterans. But at their war memorial, York and his fellow WWII veterans were given a surprise not even Honor Flight Nevada planned- a spontaneous chance to participate in the Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremony.

"Just comes as kind of a shock ," Bob Whalen, a WWII Army Air Force veteran, said. "I didn't even think they knew I was a WWII veteran, and then I was down there laying a wreath. Kind of a shock, yes. I'm kind of old now. I don't shock very easily."

96-year-old Charles Montanaro, a Merchant Marine veteran, said the surprise gave him the feeling that his service was fully appreciated.

"I just can't believe what's going on," he said. "I just hope I can let the rest of the guys know that they weren't forgotten."

But it was at the Vietnam Wall where the majority of the veterans found their healing. The veterans were sitting front row at the 35th commemoration ceremony of the memorial and finally received their first glimpse of gratitude.

"There was heroism all around," former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said during a speech at the ceremony. "But mostly it was that they did the job their country asked them to do. All Vietnam veterans should be proud of...their service."

But for these veterans, pride is hard to come by when the appreciation is lacking.

"It was a tough time," Vietnam Air Force veteran Jerry Mager said. "Everything they said about the injustice and how we weren't recognized when we came home just came back to haunt me."

Mager enlisted in the Air Force, and was able to save his younger brother from being put in harm's way during the war.

"I had gotten there in December of '68 and I was a volunteer in the Air Force," Mager said. "He was drafted, and after he had finished all of his training, I had a letter from him saying he was scheduled to come to Vietnam. I was already there so I quickly wrote back to him and told him he didn't have to go if he didn't want to as long as I was there. He would have been in more harmful danger in the Army than I was in the Air Force."

Mager says he didn't realize how affected he was by his time in service until he faced the Wall.

"I guess I haven't thought about it in years and suppressing it," he said. "But the things that took place here this week relieved me of some of that pressure I didn't know I had."

The memorial has been called 'The Wall that Heals', but finding that healing wasn't easy.

"It was harder than I thought it was going to be," Lou Solsbury, a Vietnam Army veteran, said. "I had friends drag me, over 35 years it's been here, I resisted and this is the first time I've been here. I thought being with friends would be easier. It was hard."

Solsbury is one of four friends who went on the Honor Flight Nevada trip. The group earned the nickname, 'The Four Horsemen' over their weekend for their jovial and sometimes rowdy behavior. But they were overcome with emotion during the ceremony, especially as they began to realize that their service was finally being appreciated.

"For a lot of years, people pretended this didn't happen," Solsbury said. "They just looked the other way, and it's kind of nice to acknowledge that we did a service to our country."

As the trip came to a close, strangers had become brothers. But Honor Flight Nevada wasn't quite done with the surprises.

After a whirlwind trip, the veterans were finally home in Reno. The same cheers and handshakes that were in Baltimore greeted the veterans as they disembarked the plane. But unbeknownst to the group, hundreds of people were gathered downstairs to give the veterans the homecoming they never received. One veteran's son even drove 20 hours round trip to make sure he could greet his father. With hugs, signs expressing thankfulness, and more than a few tears, all the veterans learned just how much their community loves and appreciates them.

"This is the kind of reception that we wouldn't have expected 50 years ago," Mager said. "It will be different from now on. I won't be hiding internally anymore. Now I can tell my kids I went to Vietnam."

Honor Flight Nevada chooses people based on age and health, so it is rare that Vietnam veterans are selected for flight. To make sure they are give the chance to see their memorials, Honor Flight Nevada has started a separate fund to pay for these veterans. This trip was fully sponsored by the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa. Honor Flight Nevada will resume flights in the spring. If you'd like to donate to the organization or apply to be on a flight, click here