After years of helping others take honor flights, local Vietnam veterans are heading to DC

GRAND FORKS – The early fall air was almost biting this morning – 38 degrees – as more than 100 veterans came to the airport to catch the flight, many waited years to catch.

But whatever. Their star-studded navy windbreakers helped soothe the cold almost as much as the hot breakfast sandwiches and equally warm hugs offered inside the airport.

After more than 15 years of honor flights in North Dakota, it was their turn for a day in the sun. Freezing September air sucks.

“I waited three years for this!” said Gloria Nerby, the only female veteran on the flight. “I can’t wait to see everything in the city.”

“The City” is Washington, DC, where the ND/MN Veterans Honor Flight takes 112 veterans to visit sites in the nation’s capital, including memorials built in their honor.

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Veterans from North Dakota and Minnesota were warmly welcomed by “Joe”, the Baltimore Washington International Airport volunteer, on Sunday, September 11, 2022.

Tracy Briggs / The Forum

The project, which began in 2007 as WDAY WWII Honor Flight, took World War II veterans and later Korean veterans on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington. The flight changed its name in 2017, and a group of dedicated volunteers doubled down on their commitment to continue ferrying veterans, possibly Vietnam veterans, to DC.

Communities across North Dakota and Minnesota contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the trips happen.

For the first time in 15 total trips, the number of veterans of the Vietnamese era exceeds that of veterans of other conflicts. (About 85 Vietnam veterans versus 24 from the Korean era).

“I’m so excited,” said Bill Lykken of Grafton, North Dakota. “I have been watching these thefts on television for years. I am so honored to go there now.

And the volunteer committee wanted to make sure they felt honored by starting with a water cannon salute from the fire trucks taking off from Grand Forks.

Once the group arrived in the Baltimore-DC area, they began running with stops at Ft. McHenry (the home of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

Honor Flight President Jane Matejcek said she was excited to fly again for several reasons. It’s only the second flight to take off since the COVID-19 pandemic ground flights in 2020. And more importantly, she says it’s time to thank those veterans who, since 2007, have fought so hard for others to be honoured.

“They played a decisive role. I think most of the veterans service clubs have been run by Vietnam veterans, so they’re the ones who really keep those communities alive. We are grateful now that it is their turn,” Matejcek said.

One such veteran is Russ Stabler, who is active in several veteran organizations in their area, including the Honor Guard.

Thanks to this work, Stabler was able to visit DC. But previous visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial left him “sick and hurt”.

“I have friends there,” he said. “It kind of gives you a twinge of heartache.”

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Living history volunteer Sonny Lozano and veteran Charles Sansburn exchange hats at Fort McHenry in Maryland on Sunday, September 11, 2022.

Tracy Briggs / The Forum

So he says he’ll be “a bit nervous” for the last day of the trip when the group visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But Matejcek says that knowing the unique circumstances facing Vietnam veterans, the group is more prepared than ever to deal with the tears that may come with their visit to the wall.

According to a Veterans Administration survey, some 500,000 of the 3 million soldiers who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse were significantly higher among veterans.

For the first time, the Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN has added two mental health care providers to its seven-person medical team.

“We may not need it. But I think if somebody needs to be cajoled, or mental health counseling, or even say, ‘It’s okay if you can’t see the wall’, we want to make sure that the elders fighters know that,” Matejcek said.

Stabler says he will get to the wall no matter how hard it is.

“They are my brothers and sisters on this wall,” he said. “And they deserve our support, as do their families. It’s not about me. It’s about them.

In the meantime, the group will visit other attractions including the National Archives, Arlington National Cemetery and they will also have the chance to be together.

“I’m so happy to be with other Vietnam vets. Nobody I went overseas with or anything, but it doesn’t matter,” Lykken said. “We’re all brothers, you know?

Visit Inforum.com tomorrow for Day 2 of the ND/MN Veterans Honor Flight in Washington, DC


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