The mood was mixed at Spokane International Airport early Monday morning: Excitement over the upcoming Honor Flight was for some veterans overshadowed by the memory of those lost in combat.
“I feel great,” William Gomez said of his upcoming trip, “but I’m also sad. I think I have more than 10 names on there.”
“There” is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. – “the Wall.” Gomez was an infantry soldier in 1967 and 1968, two of the deadliest years in Vietnam.
“My kids have been hollering ‘Go to the wall,’ ‘Go to the wall,’ ” he said, pausing. “Maybe to stop me from dreaming.”
Gomez was one of 92 veterans from three wars who boarded a flight to the nation’s capital Monday morning.
“It’s definitely a time of healing,” said Annie Wilkison, an Honor Flight volunteer who accompanied the group. “And with healing comes a lot of crying.”
Wilkison never served in the military, but her husband, who died in 2010, was a Vietnam veteran. Wilkison saw coverage of Honor Flight on TV and decided to start volunteering.
“What a great way to honor him and all veterans,” she said of her late husband.
She flies with the veterans and accompanies them in Washington, D.C. This is her third trip. Although she doesn’t try to elicit reactions or memories, she’s supportive and attentive if they want to talk.
“I let them know it’s OK,” she said.
For some of the veterans, particularly those who served during the Vietnam War, the flight serves as a sort of vindication. Wilkison said one veteran told her, “You know I got spit on the last time I got off the airplane.”
“It’s critical to do this,” said Jeff Corrick, another volunteer. “They did so much. They didn’t ask, they just went.”
Monday’s flight was the 31st hosted by Inland Northwest Honor Flight, said Tony Lamanna director of the nonprofit. So far this year the organization has raised nearly $250,000. Each trip costs about $1,000 per veteran; volunteers pay their own way.
Since the program started in 2009, the organization has raised about $2.3 million, Lamanna said.
“The money just keeps coming in and we just keep on going,” Lamanna said. “Our funding strictly comes from private donors and civic groups.”
One anonymous couple gives the organization $75,000 each year at Christmas, he said.
The organization has taken 1,342 veterans to the capital since 2009, Lamanna said.
Two charter flights go to Washington, D.C., each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. There’s a waiting list, with priority given to older veterans and those with terminal illnesses.
Dick Morris served on a destroyer in the Atlantic Ocean in World War II. He discovered an Honor Flight business card under his windshield at a Wal-Mart in Hayden about six months ago; his car has WWII Veteran license plates, he said. He called and was placed on the next flight.
Vietnam veteran Bennie Mazzuca has waited seven years to get a seat on an Honor Flight.
While there, the veterans tour war and veteran memorials. The Northwest chapter is part of the larger, national Honor Flight Network.
As Gomez lined up to go through security, he called the opportunity “a dream come true.” The retired chef could never afford the trip on his own, he said.
And possibly the trip offers something else – a chance to heal.
At the airport Gomez is at the end of the line because large crowds scare him. The one football game he’s been to since serving in Vietnam was terrible, he said. He spent the whole time pacing. Now he hopes the trip can bring some peace.
“It’s been very hard. Very, very hard. Very hard,” he said of Vietnam’s impact on him. “I just live day to day.”
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