Fred Small of Vinalhaven loves children.
As a teacher and a retired school principal, he’s at ease among kids, eager to read to a group of youngsters or engage in serious conversations with teenagers.
Small’s most heartfelt discussion with teens, however, may have been when he spoke recently with some Vinalhaven high school students about his experiences during the Vietnam War. He saw friends killed and other horrific sights as an infantryman, but his steady, reassuring voice nearly trembled when he spoke of the children of that country.
Although awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, Small is one of those war veterans who was never welcomed home after his service. As too often happened with Vietnam vets, he was insulted for it.
The Honor Flight foundation, the Vinalhaven school, and friends and neighbors from across the island hoped to undo some of that harsh treatment for Small, who along with veterans Leonard “Bud” Skoog, Clarence “Cap” Conway and Gordon “Bobo” Walsh, received a festive send-off from Vinalhaven on the first Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., to originate from Maine.
The Honor Flight Network is a nationwide nonprofit that provides expense-paid trips to the nation’s capital for veterans to visit their war memorials.
Over the weekend of March 21-23, I was privileged to participate in this trip as a “guardian,” or assistant, to the older vets. Also traveling as guardians were Alan Barker of Vinalhaven, a veteran; Honor Flight founder Earl Morse, Vinalhaven’s new physician’s assistant and retiree from the Air Force; and Terry Waters, wife of Penobscot Island Air owner Kevin Waters. All Honor Flight veterans travel with a guardian to make the trip easy.
After conversations with high school history students, a patriotic assembly led by music teacher Michelle Wiley and a rousing cheer from the flag-waving island children, veterans and guardians were taken to Vinalhaven’s gravel airstrip.
Pilots Kevin Waters and Jim Strang of Penobscot Island Air delivered us to the Portland International Jetport, where the veterans were met by two television crews. This small group from a small island would be, appropriately, a big deal for Maine.
No one, however, expected the reception the veterans received upon their arrival in Washington. Honor Flight volunteers in neon yellow shirts were everywhere, offering help and directions, handshakes and smiles. Hundreds of air travelers were eager to show their respect and affection for our veterans.
“I’m one who likes to applaud others. I’ve never had this experience before in my life,” said Fred Small.
One of the vets mentioned quietly to volunteer Waters, “I don’t cry — but I did.”
While traveling to each war memorial and monument, Morse commented on a few things he has observed over nine years of trips.
“We always have local bikers come out to ride [as an honor guard] with the group,” he said. “They’re typically Vietnam vets. I asked a few guys why they always come for the Honor Flight groups and they say, ‘Because we didn’t get any welcome home.’”
At the World War II Memorial, Bud Skoog found himself surrounded by teenagers who wanted to meet a veteran of that era. One young lady gave him a hug. Morse, an eager and animated guide, soon attracted a large crowd of tourists as he explained the bronze plaques that depict scenes from the Atlantic and Pacific theaters and the industrial work on the home front.
It was there that the Vinalhaven veterans were presented with a flag that was flown over the Capitol, as well as a letter from Maine Sen. Angus King.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is both moving and artistically compelling. On one side is a polished black granite wall etched with more than 2,500 faces of servicemen and women from all branches of the military doing every possible job, clustered as though in a crowd.
On the other side, there are 19 life-sized bronze statues of wet, cold, muddy, exhausted servicemen trudging up a hill. Those 19 statues are reflected in the wall, creating 38 images, recalling the 38th parallel that divides the Korean peninsula. A floral wreath presented by the Republic of Korea always decorates the memorial.
Walking along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, one might think oneself in a library. Adults speak in hushed tones, if at all; some stand very still, while others pass with quiet respect for what must be in their heads. The sheer number of names — over 58,000 — feels overwhelming, exactly as it should. The Vietnam memorial also includes two bronze statues, one of three servicemen and one of three nurses, both capable of raising a lump in one’s throat.
Every American should see them.
The group also visited the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Navy and Air Force Monuments, the Iwo Jima statue and the Women in Military Service Memorial before going to supper together.
On the flight back to Portland the next day, each veteran was handed a large envelope stuffed with letters from friends, family and schoolchildren. This “mail call” is an Honor Flight tradition and can be a very meaningful part of the experience.
Typical were the words of a Vinalhaven student: “I’m really happy you get to go on this trip. I can’t imagine what you had to go through. Thank you for your service.”
Despite the emotional significance of the war memorials and the deeply patriotic theme of the whole event, this was hardly a somber or depressing weekend.
Bobo Walsh’s constant sense of humor, Cap Conway’s steady smile and the obvious cementing of new friendships made this — like Honor Flight trips in general — a real pleasure.
For Fred Small, and for the other vets, the warm welcome they received upon return to Vinalhaven was the “welcome home” they deserved. Small spoke for many when he observed that, “This is a healing experience.”