"I live with a memory that stays with me at all times – the good and the bad. I try to hold the bad back and tell about the good," Duane F. Meyer of Yorktown said.
Meyer now has many more good stories to share after returning from the special honor flight from Omaha, Nebraska, that toured Washington, D.C., Friday, May 24. The honor flight was specifically for Purple Heart veterans and Gold Star family members.
"It was the closure I never had to my military career. When I came home there were no welcome parades to speak of at all. This was quite an honor even though it was delayed. I feel very privileged I got to do this and I thank everyone that was a part of it for their help, time and investment," Meyer said.
Organized by Bill and Evonne Williams of Patriotic Productions, this was the 13th honor flight the organization has provided for military veterans over the last 11 years. Meyer met Bill Williams during the event and learned he is originally from Red Oak.
Meyer served in Vietnam from 1969 until 1970 as a member of the 25th Infantry 1st of the 5th Mech. The armored personnel carrier unit was on 24 hour call to assist other units in trouble as well as conducting foot patrols and enemy ambushes.
"We took six of them to dust while I was over there and had to get replacements," Meyer said.
During his tour of duty, Meyer was awarded three Purple Hearts for being wounded in battle. He was also presented the Bronze Star for heroic service in a combat zone and numerous other honors.
"At the time I received (those medals) I didn’t consider them very important. They wouldn’t even buy you a cup of coffee, but after taking this trip, I realized they are something very important to me," Meyer said. "I feel I was very lucky and fortunate I made it home, and I’m very sad and very sorry for the ones that didn’t make it. I learned there is a sense of camaraderie between soldiers that is very unique and can’t be given unless you’ve been there."
Meyer was among approximately 100 Purple Heart veterans and dozens of Gold Star family members to participate in the honor flight Friday. Among the Gold Star family members to participate were the wife and son of Brent Maher, of Farragut, who died April 2011, while serving with the Iowa National Guard in Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom.
There were also approximately 45 guardians who traveled with the honor flight to assist the veterans and Gold Star families during the days. Serving as one of those guardians was Dawn Hadden of Essex.
"Our veterans are heroes. They were willing to do anything for our country and our freedom. I didn’t want the day to end. I wanted it to keep going. It was one of the top 10 days of my life," Hadden said.
Following the death of Maher, Hadden organized the "Loops For Our Troops" bicycle rides to raise funds to support military veterans. It was through that event she became acquainted with Patriotic Productions.
When she learned of the honor flight, Hadden contacted the organization about serving as a guardian. She said she was ecstatic to be selected to join the flight.
Meyer previously applied for an honor flight from Des Moines, but received no response to his application. However, with the assistance of Hadden and Page County Veterans Affairs Executive Director Janet Olsen, Meyer was quickly added to the honor flight for Purple Heart veterans.
"I thought it was wonderful. I had put it off for quite a few years, but my family said I needed to go," Meyer said.
"I think I was more excited about him going than me because he deserved that," Hadden said.
Prior to departing on the honor flight, Hadden, Meyer and the rest of the 181 participants, attended a special Thursday night, May 23, in Omaha. During the event there were performances by a children’s choir, an adult choir, a Nebraska comedian who received a Purple Heart and was participating in the flight. An artist also did a painting of Arlington National Cemetery.
"The comedian had been burnt over 60 percent of his body and lost a hand, but he made fun of his burns. He had a positive attitude and told those who had been wounded not to be discouraged and move on," Meyer said.
The honor flight arrived at Ronald Reagan National Airport at approximately 7:30 p.m. The group was loaded on charter buses and received a police escort during its daylong tour of Washington, D.C.
"We were escorted by a police officer on a motorcycle. He said the only things we would stop for were the President or Vice President. It was a ride you wouldn’t believe. We had a schedule to follow and he was going to make sure we got there," Meyer said.
That schedule includes visits to Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Word War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The tour also drove past the Pentagon.
The most impressive parts of the tour for Meyer were the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. Hadden agreed it was very emotional to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial features sections of granite wall chronologically listing the names of 58,272 names of Americans who gave their lives in service of their country. The list of names also includes 1,200 people who were considered Missing in Action or as Prisoners of War.
"To me, being a Vietnam veteran, it was amazing. As I stood back and looked at the wall, in my mind, the faces of the comrades I had known appeared," Meyer said.
Arlington National Cemetery covers 624 acres and is home to more than 400,000 graves of soldiers dating all the way back to the Civil War. The tour of the cemetery included a visit to Section 60, which is called the saddest section of the cemetery. Opened in 2001, Meyer said the section serves as the final resting place of those who died in their country’s most recent conflicts rather than formally declared wars.
The group then visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and witnessed the Changing of the Guard. The Tomb Guards are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment known as "The Old Guard."
While guarding the tomb, the soldiers march a 21 step path, turn with 21 second intervals and return 21 paces. The 21 count symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed – the 21 gun salute.
The Changing of the Guard occurs every half hour during daylight hours in the summer and every hour during daylight hours in the winter. The guard shifts are two hours at night.
"To actually stand on the sacred ground of Arlington National Cemetery was very emotional. There is no end in sight to the tombstones there. The guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier have so much pride in their duty. They dedicate the rest of their life to that. That shows the utmost respect of anything you could ever do in your life," Hadden said.
While visiting the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Hadden said the group also witnessed a historic site. The memorial depicts the raising of the United States flag at Iwo Jima and is adorned with an actual flag.
"In the history of that statue, there has never been a time when a flag wasn’t flying. The whole point is the raising of the flag. However, they had a bad storm the night before and the rigging was destroyed. So there was no flag," Hadden said.
Upon their return Friday night from Washington, D.C., the honor flight participants were treated to a welcome home parade through the Old Market and Durham Museum.
"I felt like it was long overdue for some of us, but it was greatly appreciated," Meyer said.
"People love our veterans, as well they should. They stood and clapped. Our Vietnam veterans finally got the welcome home they deserved, Hadden said. "It was a perfect day. It was an eye-opening, emotional and heart-felt trip. I am so honored I got a chance to go."