Flight of a lifetime

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Oconto Falls veteran gives firsthand account of Old Glory Honor Flight experience

Rodney Goodell, Special to the Times Herald

Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 27 are reflected on the surface of the black marble, which is etched with the names of the more than 58,000 service members who died during the long conflict. (Photo by Rodney Goodell)

Editor’s note: Rodney Goodell of Oconto Falls was one of 130 Vietnam-era veterans who were on the Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight from EAA AirVenture Oshkosh to Washington, D.C., on July 27. He shares his thoughts and feelings about that day.
Today I am in our nation’s capital at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall” as it is often called, looking for two names on The Wall. I am having trouble locating the names, but a friendly park attendant is nearby.
She references the names and location on The Wall and leads me to the right panel. A steady stream of visitors moves along the memorial, and everyone displays respect. Many bring flowers and reverently place them at the base.
The Memorial Wall is a great story in itself. In the early 1980s, a small group of vets began to push for a symbol of recognition for those who served in Vietnam. Initially there was resistance, some saying it was a bitter chapter in our history and the sooner forgotten, the better.
Not to be denied, a groundswell of support for a memorial began, and finally officials gave consent. Design competition was announced with a deadline of March 1981.
More than 1,400 designs were submitted, and judgment was done anonymously by an expert panel of recognized designers. The winning design was submitted by Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old student of Yale University.
The west wing points directly at the Lincoln Memorial, and the east wing directly at the Washington Monument, bringing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into historical perspective. In chronological order, more than 58,000 names are etched into the polished black granite wall, a sobering reminder of the tremendous sacrifice and loss of life for many of our fallen brothers.
This day began very early with a wonderful send-off from the Oshkosh airport and a great reception at the Ronald Reagan International Airport. I am privileged to be with a fellow group of Wisconsin vets selected to be on this Old Glory Honor Flight. Appropriately, our first stop is here at The Wall.
This trip is special because I am with a good friend who served as crew chief on a C-130 transport plane stationed in the Philippines. During the conflict, he was on numerous missions in Vietnam, where he spent much of his tour often under fire.
My friend served admirably for 18 months in this capacity until he completed his service obligation. Inexplicably, he had never received the recognition or service medals he deserved, due only to bureaucratic oversight. Years later, with assistance from former service members and the local service officer, he was finally recognized for his service. I am confident this visit today will help bring some closure for him.
We are on a tight schedule, and an escorted bus takes us to our next stop at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The centerpiece of our stop is the Huey helicopter up on the third floor, the largest artifact in the entire museum.
Some of us move to the iconic exhibit, for that chopper brings back unforgettable memories. Who could ever forget the unmistakable sound, sight and presence of a Huey helicopter?
It is mid-afternoon, and now we are on our way to Arlington National Cemetery. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and changing of the guard are highlights many in our group have never seen. Around the clock every day of the year, the hallowed tomb is guarded by a soldier of impeccable bearing. We are in time to join a large crowd, all here to watch the changing of the guard. Cameras are everywhere, for it is a memorable experience to witness this event.
This day has passed so quickly, and now we are on our way back to the airport for our return flight home.
After takeoff, there is an unexpected announcement for Mail Call. Each of us is handed a thick packet of cards and letters from schoolchildren, friends, acquaintances and well-wishers. I doubt if there was a dry eye in the plane as we read through the many heartwarming notes and letters.
The day is coming to an end, but we are in for the biggest surprise of all. Our 747 sets down, and we look out the windows to see a crowd that numbers in the thousands. Shoulder to shoulder, this crowd is lined up on both sides of the runway.
We begin our exit and slowly work our way through the crowd. Hugs, handshakes, heartfelt words and tears are everywhere. None in our group expected a homecoming like this.
Finally, we get to the end where a band is playing and the colors are in place. There is a closing ceremony, and it is here we learn American Airlines, pilots and attendants are all donating their times without pay to support this great event.
We also learn the Wisconsin organizers of this honor flights are all volunteers who work tirelessly to make this happen. The redshirt guardians who accompany us and work so hard to help those in our flight who need assistance are also volunteers. They are so committed, they pay for the opportunity to be guardians.
Throughout this day, the recurring theme has been to finally welcome us home. It is never too late.
I cannot imagine a better honor, and any lingering issues I harbored no longer exist. In our great country there is often a divide on issues, but somehow we come together and make good things happen.
Today is a day I will cherish for the rest of my life. I have never been more proud to be an American.