By Anne Teigen
For the last decade, I have volunteered with the Rocky Mountain Honor Flight (RMHF), whose mission statement is to give "WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans in the Rocky Mountain Region the opportunity to visit the National WWII Memorial and other monuments and memorials dedicated to their service, located in Washington, D.C."
The RMHF Board, of which I am the secretary, plans four trips a year with about 28 veterans per trip to visit our nation’s capital for no cost to them.
I took two days’ vacation from NCSL last month and put on my Honor Flight guardian hat. As a guardian, I travel with the veterans and physically assist them at the airport, during the flight, at the hotel and at the memorials. I push wheelchairs, take pictures, pass out water, serve lunches, provide blankets, and do anything and everything else needed to make their three-day experience wonderful. In that time, I make meaningful and lasting friendships with many of the veterans.
Every one of my 12 trips has a distinct feel and is extremely special to me. This latest time was the first time I was on a flight with World War II, Korea and Vietnam War veterans. This year was special as it is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history, and one in which my new friend, Norm, had fought.
What most struck me on this trip was how the 15 Vietnam veterans interacted with the nine WWII and four Korean War veterans. The Vietnam veterans were so considerate, accommodating and helpful to the WWII vets while we visited the WWII memorial. They walked around, took pictures, posed for pictures and led a group of WWII vets to see “Kilroy” at the memorial. I thanked one of the Vietnam vets for all of their help and he responded, “Well, they are the real heroes.”
That statement hit me deep in my gut and really got me thinking. It hurt my heart to think that some of these men who served in Vietnam didn’t think they were “real heroes.” Just like the WWII and Korean War vets before them, many were 18 years old when they answered their nation’s call to serve.
Many of them were drafted. They didn’t know the geopolitical history or implications of a tiny country in Southeast Asia or how their experiences there would affect their lives forever. They did their duty and served their country and were affected by political decisions happening thousands of miles away just as the veterans before them.
But, unlike their predecessors, they were never welcomed home. No ticker-tape parades or kisses in Times Square. They returned home to a hostile and divided nation that despised political decisions and in many cases, despised them.
I kept thinking about how we can consider some people “real heroes” and not others. Heroes aren’t just on the front lines. They are in the less flashy positions in the engine room of destroyers or as remote radio operators or builders of runways.
And heroes don’t just fight in popular wars. The 15 Vietnam veterans on my honor flight were all heroes. These men, these “real” heroes, went to the jungle when they were boys, saw the unspeakable, fought the unwinnable and share a bond with the souls of names on a wall that is unbreakable.
Anne Teigen is the program director for NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.