Special Report: A Long-Awaited Welcome Home
It was an emotional weekend for 82 Vietnam veterans from all over Michigan.
They traveled to Washington, D. C., through the Children of the American Revolution Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight, to see the memorials that stand in their honor.
“It feels so surreal that it’s actually here,” said Alice Kraatz.
It’s been a moment in the making for her since she was eight years old, when a Vietnam veteran told her a story.
“That he came back from Vietnam, and the moment he stepped outside, somebody spat in his face,” she started to explain. “And as an eight year old, still now, I can’t fathom why somebody would do that.”
Carrying that memory with her and eager to make a change, Alice went on to serve as state president for Michigan Society Children of the American Revolution when she was 13 years old.
“I wanted to do something that was going to make a real impact on people’s lives,” she said.
She wanted to send a special honor flight of just Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials that stand in their honor.
“I knew that other states had done these Yellow Ribbon Honor Flights with all Vietnam veterans, and it had been a much more powerful experience of healing,” Alice said.
A big challenge with a big price tag of $140,000.
While leaders were reluctant at first, this 13-year-old was not taking no for an answer.
“I knew that I had everything lined up and that I could convince them that it was feasible and I could do this,” Alice said. “It was a lot of driving around, a lot of making phone calls. I owe a lot of it to my mom.”
Alice’s mom, Elizabeth, said it was either sink or swim.
“And Alice learned that she could swim,” Elizabeth said proudly. “And each time I saw her being able to really represent her thoughts and ideas so eloquently to the public, I was able to step back further and further and just watch because I had confidence that she had confidence in herself.”
“If there was a road from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to New Delhi, India, we drove there and back, going around the state of Michigan and talking to different groups and raising funds,” Alice laughed.
Every mile driven, every second spent, well worth it.
Just one year later, Alice’s hard work added up to the $140,000 she needed.
She’s sent 82 Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C., as a part of the Children of the American Revolution Michigan Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight.
“I’m very excited to see especially the Vietnam wall tomorrow through the eyes of not myself, but a Vietnam veteran,” Alice said.
The flight was supposed to be a few years ago, but COVID-19 grounded all Honor Flights.
Alice, now 17, has had some time thinking about how she would make this once in lifetime experience extraordinary for these Vietnam veterans.
“Fortunately, it’s considered a special Honor Flight so we’ve been able to take some of her creative ideas and actually put them into action, which is something that’s not usual, Honor Flights run in a certain way,” said Elizabeth.
A bus picked up veterans from all over Northern Michigan, like Dave and Ronald Kurdziel from Canadian lakes. on Friday June 17th.
They are uncle and nephew by blood, brothers by choice.
“We hung out as brothers all the time,” Dave explained. “So wherever we went, it was just we were together every day, all the time.”
The veterans thought it would be a straight shot down to Kalamazoo.
But the first surprise of many would be the strangers eagerly waiting for these heroes with handshakes, hugs, music, and more.
“I am amazed all the people who turned out, the pomp and circumstance, it’s a big deal,” said Dave.
“It was nice, nice people turning up and treating you very good,” said Ronald.
Another special touch for this first of its kind Honor Flight made possible by Talons Out Honor Flight and Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, would be a banquet gathering all 82 veterans and their guardians in one room.
“It’s just so incredible to see these faces that I work so hard to bring here, and that they’re all they’re all so excited to be here,” said Alice.
Alice met James McCloughan at another Honor Flight.
She asked him to be the key note speaker for this Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight.
“I said in a heartbeat, you know, I’ll come for her,” said James. “What a marvelous thing for a young lady to come forward and say ‘I’m going to raise this money so that it’s going to be an all Vietnam veteran.’”
James served in Vietnam from 1968-70 as a Combat Medic.
That’s where he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, hanging proudly around his neck.
“It’s the highest award that you can receive for bravery, and you must have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and you must have risked your life,” described James.
President Trump awarded it to him 48 years after his action, on January 31st, 2017.
“I never talked about my service time because for two things, I didn’t want to go there, and secondly, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway,” he said. “And I’ve never told a lot of the things that only I saw because when somebody call for a medic, I was the only one to go to the scene of the accident, so to speak.”
James says he was afraid to see the Vietnam wall for a long time, but after traveling with his first Honor Flight, he found it was healing.
He hopes his brothers and sisters find the same comfort in the trip they’re embarking on the next day.
“I just want to be a part of the entire group and watch and see how other people are able to use this particular event to pull some things together,” Jim said. “Because for a long, long time they’ve had to face some things that were wrong or face some things that were never accurate.”
“I think my hope is that these veterans will feel a lasting impact from this Honor Flight, and feel more willing to share what they’ve experienced in the years to come,” Alice said. “And that my generation will recognize that these men are all heroes whether or not we agree with the war that was fought.”
The next morning started bright and early.
82 Vietnam veterans and their guardians arriving at the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport at 6 a.m. before it was wheels up for Washington, D.C.
Lee Curry served from 1962 to 1967.
His son Kevin is his guardian for this trip, but this Gaylord family is traveling in a group of seven.
“I was surprised that there were four of us brother-in-laws all together,” said Lee.
“So my uncle Dennis got in contact with somebody from Michigan, and he just kind of filtered it through the rest of the family,” explained Kevin Curry.
The close-knit family gets together often for family dinners, but this family experience would be like no other.
“They’re all more excited that we got to go on this together,” said Lee.
It will be his first time in Washington, D.C.
“I’m nervous, my heart is right here, you know, and, and I don’t care anymore,” he said.
The nerves settled, and the celebration commenced, when the Children of the American Revolution Michigan Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight landed in our nation’s capital.
First stop of an action packed day was the Marine Corps War Memorial.
“Without one part of our history when happened, we got another part, so it’s very important that we recognize every single part of history, every single branch of the military and every single type of person who served in the military,” said Alice.
Then the Air Force Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“They take 21 steps and they stop for 21 seconds, and then they change directions and stop for 21 seconds and take 21 steps,” explained Alice.
Alice, James, another veteran had the privilege of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I mean, that’s something that almost nobody gets to do,” said Alice. “And it was sort of a surprise and it was the best surprise I could have asked for.”
Each experience more powerful than the last, and more manageable next to those they served with, and the brothers they’re lucky enough to call family.
Dennis Dickerson is here with his brother Eric, as a part of the group of seven from Gaylord.
He says a lot happened while he served from 1968 to 1973.
“I missed a lot of family history, near five years,” he said. “So I have some lapses there, I missed some weddings.”
Another piece of the Gaylord puzzle is Ted Nichols.
He served from 1970 to 1992.
“I mean, yeah, it’s been good having somebody with you and stuff makes you feel, you know, more like your purpose,” said Ted.
This is his first time in D.C., and the first time seeing what was the most dreaded part of the day, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“But yeah, it’s I knew that this was going to be tearful for me, I just avoided it,” said Dave. “This is personal. I mean, you know, everything before this was all, you know, people celebrating, you know, doing great things, and this was just horrible.”
“It’s definitely a more somber sort of reflective, introspective tone now that we’re here at the Vietnam Memorial,” said Alice. “All of these men and women are seeing the names of their fallen comrades, their brothers, and their sisters.”
Feeling the wall and looking at the wall, seeing their own reflection through the thousands of names prompts a flood of memories.
“I can remember that wave emptying my whole magazine and one guy and I thought if I got to put the whole magazine to one guy to kill him, I ain’t coming home,” said Dave.
But with the horror, comes healing.
“I feel a whole lot better now going through this than I did before,” said Dave.
Side by side.
“We grew up together, we live together, we’re going to die together, said Dave about Ronald.
Family getting one another through.
“Oh, it’s hard to say, I feel relieved,” said Lee.
“Thank god for Dennis, Dennis and Ted and Dick, you know,” Lee said.
“This has been this has been quite the adventure,” said Kevin. “You know, I’ve watched not just my dad, you know, but I watched my uncles and stuff go through and look at different things and I can see the emotion on their faces and all and I’m hoping like that, that they got some relief out of this.”
Plenty of relief, without even saying a word.
That’s what makes this Honor Flight different than the rest.
“You can feel that togetherness, you can feel that understanding from all of those other people that have been in the same situations you have,” said James.
“Looking around, seeing the guys that were the same age as you when you went in there, and see how in 52 years we’ve all changed a tremendous amount,” said Dave.
But one thing that hasn’t changed for any of them is the longing for the welcome home they didn’t get when came back from Vietnam.
“When we got home, we did it quietly, and you did it so that no one knew you were, they wanted to be you were supposed to be ashamed of wearing a uniform,” explained Dave.
People spat in their faces and called them unimaginable names for just doing their jobs.
Experiences they’d like to forget, but can’t.
“That was the first that I ever heard we were a baby killer,” sad Lee. “I didn’t understand that for a long, long time, we just did our job.”
So the Children of the American Revolution had one last surprise lined up for them when they touched back down in Michigan.
Flags, first responders, music, smiles, hugs and tears.
“It’s just so amazing to see really the entire state of Michigan and everybody from all walks of life come together to support one group of people and trying to right those wrongs that happened 50 years ago,” said Alice.
“That makes me feel good that people do care that the thoughts from before gone,” said Dave.
A stark difference from when they got back from the war.
“It’s way better,” said Lee, almost at a loss for words. “They thank you for your sacrifice.”
This was the welcome home these 82 Vietnam veterans have been waiting decades for.
“It’s just so it’s just so overwhelming, you just don’t see kids, you know, mom and dads and the flags and everybody and then telling you welcome home and it just it just leaves you speechless,” Lee said.
If you’d like more information about Talons Out Honor Flight, click here.
If you’d like more information about Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, click here.