Local Vietnam War veterans finally receive overdue hero’s welcome home thanks to Utah Honor Flights
By Robert Stevens
WASHINGTON D.C.—This year, the Utah Honor Flight program offered local veterans of the Vietnam War something they’d never had before—a hero’s welcome.
It’s no secret that anti-war sentiment among the civilian population contributed to a difficult return home for many U.S. soldiers at the close of the Vietnam War. Instead of the valiant return celebrated by the survivors of World Wars I and II, veterans of the Vietnam War often left a fight on foreign soil to come home to find another fight waiting for them.
But four veterans from Sanpete County found more than the respect and honor on their Honor Flight by the volunteers who participate in the Honor Flights that send veterans to Washington D.C. to experience the capital and be honored with recognition for their service.
Dennis Matthews of Mayfield, Jon Cox of Manti, Richard Burgess of Gunnison and Darwin Ogden of Gunnison, all soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, found some peace and healing along their journey to the nation’s capital, and they found a hero’s welcome on their return.
But Matthews says it started off with a hero’s sendoff. On each trip to D.C.—one in October and one in September—there were 25 vets that flew from Las Vegas, meeting in St. George first, and 25 that flew from Salt Lake. Between veterans and companions, there were 100 total attendees per flight.
Most of the vets on the two flights served during the Vietnam War.
Matthews flew out of Las Vegas. He was shuttled there with 24 other veterans and their companions on a bus escorted by motorcycle-riding Honor Flight fans and veteran supporters.
“They rode with us the whole way to the airport like they were clearing the way,” he says. Multiple Honor Flyers mentioned the talented driving skills of each of their bus drivers on the trip, so, in reality, the escort was purely ceremonial and an expression of respect.
Every veteran who goes on an honor flight must have a companion to travel with. Often a family member, in Matthew’s case, his son Joseph decided he wanted to take his father.
A cattleman, Joseph Matthews chose to slaughter one of his herd to pay for the $1000 in travel costs so he could be there to support his father.
Manti’s Jon Cox was honored by being chosen to fill a seat on the honor flight as well.
“It was the best trip of my life,” he says. Cox had five of his best friends die as the result of their service during the Vietnam War.
He added, “It was pretty humbling. It makes you appreciate your country.”
Odgen says his Honor Flight “was awesome.”
Upon arrival at the nation’s capitol, the Honor Flyers were greeted everywhere they went by volunteers, admirers and politicians.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah’s 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee all made appearances during honor flights held this year to personally thank the groups of 50 veterans for their service to their country.
Washington D.C. very nearly becomes a private tour zone for the group, who glide on wheelchairs for comfort and not necessity, helped along by their companions.
Historic and military hotspots became intimate experiences for the group during the trip. The National Archives, Arlington Cemetery, the Marine Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall were just a few of the places the veteran VIPs visited.
Matthews says it was all very intense, and for him no other place was as intense as the Vietnam Memorial.
“I put my hand on the wall, and I thought about everyone who never came home,” Matthew says. “It was incredibly moving to be there, but it was intense. I’ll never, ever forget what it feels like. I remember seeing homeless veterans at the memorial too with their hands on the monument just like mine.”
Ogden too had a moving experience in the military memorials.
“Over 58,220 names are there,” Ogden said of the Vietnam Memorial. “We looked at names of our fallen buddies. Of the names of my friends and buddies, the one that means a lot to me is that of Donald “Donnie” K. Dudley. He was killed just before I got over there.”
At the Korean War Memorial and other stops, Ogden says he was confronted with even more harsh reality inherent in these memorials.
“I just looked in awe at the statues and reflected on the history of those men and what they had endured in battles,” Ogden says. “One panel there says it all; the panel reads one simple phrase: ‘Freedom Is Not Free’.
Ogden added, “Our freedom cost the blood and lives of so many throughout our history. We should never forget those to whom we owe the freedoms we enjoy in this land.”
Awards ceremonies were held for the Honor Flight attendees. They were all given the Cold War Ribbon. Many among them were already the recipients of medals earned during service for country.
They toured the historic military coastal port, Fort McHenry, where a successfully routed British bombing in 1812 planted the seed of inspiration that would eventually grow into our nation’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
At the fort, each veteran was given a flag that had flown atop the fort’s famous, historic and still-standing flag pole that flew the American garrison flag high after the failed colonial-era British siege.
Ogden says the time spent at Fort McHenry and seeing that flag pole in person was the highlight of his trip. He left feeling humbled.
After a hero’s banquet on their last night at the capital, the groups arrived home at the Las Vegas airport to a “super soaker salute” from cheering fans and volunteers.
For the Vietnam War veterans—perhaps the most unjustly treated returning U.S. soldiers—the journey home from the trip was possibly the most surreal part of the trip.
During their final miles in the hands of the “highly-capable” Honor Flight volunteers, people lined the streets along the return bus route, cheering with adoration and respect for the dozens of men who had once returned to an inhospitable populace—but not this time.
This time things were different.
“We were escorted by the honor guard, police and fire units,” Ogden says “People lined the streets. Flags were waved, horns honked, people waved. It was awesome and extremely emotional for me.”
Ogden says they had once gone to war in silence, and returned home to protest and hatred.
“We were blamed for the war,” he says. “We didn’t talk much about the war or even being there unless asked. ‘Welcome home’ were words we never heard–only between each other.”
Ogden says that it was 50 years too late, but still “very, very, very appreciated by all of us who finally came back to a welcome home.”
Matthews says his return was especially poignant for him. He says something happened to him along the journey, and the welcome home. Something he can’t completely explain, but feels very grateful for.
“I feel like a burden that has been on my shoulders for 50 years had been lifted,” Matthews says. “The PTSD I’ve felt ever since I came home went away. It was a life-changing moment. There are no words of gratitude I could express that would do it real justice.”
In retrospect, the Sanpete veterans’ companions, such as Cox’s daughter Nicole Jensen, say they were humbled by how much reverence, respect and honor was shown to the veterans they accompanied.
Utah Honor Flight Director and Chairman Mike Turner says the first Honor Flights took place half a decade ago and their entire purpose is to show veterans the utmost honor and respect possible for their service to country.
“Our Utah Veterans deserve the honor and respect of our nation, our state and our communities for the sacrifices they have made that benefit those of us who have not served,” Turner says.
A healing effect is something Turner says the Utah Honor Flight volunteers strive for.
“Our goal is to allow these veterans to heal, reflect, and hopefully share their service history with their family and communities and to teach those who are unaware what it means to be a United States service member,” he says. “Our Honor Flights allow our veterans an opportunity to visit their war memorials at no cost to the veteran. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for their sacrifice.”
Matthews says, at one point, the group was asked by Honor Flight volunteers what they were feeling, and his own feelings and the impression he says he got from the others was an overwhelming sense of relief and awe at the such an intensely emotional experience.”
“More than one of us shed tears,” he says. “I think everyone walked away feeling better.”
Ogden says, although he wants to thank the Utah Honor Flight program very much, he is most grateful for his son and Honor flight companion, Rocky Ogden, for sharing the journey with him.