Roger Fleishour, 66, walked into the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3067 on Monday afternoon, a gift tucked under his left arm.
Though he’d just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., meant to honor his tour of duty in Vietnam, Fleishour had another man’s service in mind. Diagnosed with cancer in January and given six months to live, he’s not sure how much time he has to honor others.
But seven months after that declaration, he handed a ceiling panel he designed to Rick McCoy, a fellow Vietnam vet and VFW regular.
“That’s awesome,” McCoy said as his panel joined the 50 or so devoted to other veterans that hang overhead inside the building. The two men embraced beneath the images of a bald eagle, the American flag and the Statue of Liberty with McCoy’s Army rank (sergeant) and years of service (1970 to 1972) that replaced one of the ceiling’s remaining generic white tiles.
“We’ll get ’em filled up yet,” said Fleishour, who’s designed all but five of the tiles currently hanging.
Fleishour became one of the region’s youngest Honor Flight recipients this weekend. The program, which has branched out nationally since its launch in 2005 after the construction of the World War II memorial on the National Mall, was designed to ensure veterans of that war had a chance to visit the memorial before dying. Exceptions are made in cases like Fleishour’s, where illness shortens the window. In the past seven years, private donations have enabled trips for nearly 100,000 veterans nationwide.
Soft-spoken, spectacled and clad head-to-toe in denim, Fleishour spoke little about himself Monday afternoon. As a corpsman for one tour in Vietnam during the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968, Fleishour focused more on the lives he worked to save and the sacrifices of others. The most moving experience of the trip, he said, was standing before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – a recessed wall engraved with names of the fallen – and being shown the dozen or so panels of all those killed while he was in the country.
“I was so moved that all these guys gave their lives,” Fleishour said as tears welled in his eyes.
Fleishour’s journey to D.C. began in May, when Ray Ortega, a member of the Deer Park VFW Post, submitted an application on Fleishour’s behalf.
“He’d talked about his impending death,” Ortega said. “One of the things on his bucket list was doing the Honor Flight.”
Requests are granted chronologically based on service, with World War II veterans receiving priority for flights that leave every few months. Korea and Vietnam vets will follow.
A chartered flight left Spokane filled with 95 World War II vets in May. Another will leave in September. But Fleishour’s circumstances called for a quicker departure. Inland Northwest Honor Flight Director Tony Lamanna said he became a “middleman,” booking Fleishour on a trip with other veterans with terminal illnesses and those from areas far from a participating airport.
“Thank God they were able to get him on,” Lamanna said.
Fleishour met another Vietnam vet with stage 4 lung cancer on the trip. He knew the man only as Ernie, and the two shared meals and remembrances of the war throughout the two-day visit. Fleishour said the familiarity between the two was a relic of the war.
“We had nicknames and first names,” Fleishour said. “Last names didn’t matter a whole heckuva lot. We were all brothers on a first-name basis.”
The hero’s welcome that met Fleishour on his return to Spokane on Sunday afternoon was unexpected, he said. More than 75 motorcyclists showed up to accompany Fleishour home, and a little girl waited on the ramp to thank him for his service, he said. Fleishour’s ever-present humility, the trait embodied in the panels overhead, resurfaced as he insisted the honor belonged to his fellow servicemen and -women.
“The World War II vets – they should see it first,” Fleishour said. “They should see what the American people really feel about them.”