This Memorial Day, I took my 92-year-old dad Neil Stamey, a World War II and Korean War veteran, to the Celebration of Flags at our local cemetery. The occasion stirred memories of our 2012 trip with the Honor Flight group that offers free trips to our nation’s capital for veterans. This group was mostly World War II vets, visiting different war memorials.
Each veteran was required to have a “guardian” along, since many of these elderly men and women needed assistance. When Dad asked me to go, I had mixed emotions. Neil and I haven’t always seen eye to eye – we’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and he wasn’t thrilled with his “hippie war protester” daughter during the Vietnam War.
I’m still all for “making love, not war,” but I started to relate more to the soldiers’ viewpoint while living for several years with a Vietnam War veteran who had been wounded and was dealing with issues not well understood at that time. While growing up, I hadn’t heard much about Dad’s war experiences in the Navy in the Pacific, except for intriguing tales about the Fiji islanders and a near-fatal illness he’d suffered without access to adequate medical facilities. It was only recently that he’d started talking more about his service, and I realized that this trip with Honor Flight was important to him.
The folks organizing these flights were terrific, ushering vets onto flights to D.C. and organizing hotel, meals, and tours once there. Our plane, on landing and taxiing to the gate, was greeted by two fire trucks spraying arcs of water to form a welcoming gateway for the veterans. We all assembled on a bus to the hotel, where we had an orientation and dinner. Over the next two days, we visited memorials and museums.
First up was the newly-finished World War II memorial, which was especially appreciated as finally honoring the service of so many in that pivotal war. We then visited the Korean War memorial, a very different and more intimate recreation of the soldiers in the field. Next came the Vietnam War memorial, its stark stone with the names of all the fallen soldiers a sobering reminder for my generation in particular. After visiting Arlington Cemetery and watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we ended the second day at the monument to the battle of Iwo Jima, with its iconic statue.
These monuments made a powerful impact, but perhaps most touching were the stories of the different veterans I was able to chat with on the bus rides. (Dad had been “adopted” by the young son – also named Neil – of one of the tour organizers, and the boy insisted on sitting with Dad on the bus rides.)
Most of the veterans—some in wheelchairs or moving cautiously with canes – were modest about their war experiences. Persuaded to tell their stories, some revealed incredible tales of bravery and endurance, like the fighter pilot who was shot down by the Germans and taken to a Concentration Camp instead of a POW prison. He barely survived starvation and then a forced winter march afterwards, before being rescued by American troops near the end of the war. When I expressed admiration for his heroism, he shrugged and said it was simply his duty and what anyone would do in his position. I recalled a similar attitude in my uncle, also a fighter pilot who flew 47 missions and was hit several times. He made light of the perils, focusing on creating a full life as a teacher and school principal when he returned home, and chose not to come along on the Honor Flight, as “that was history.”
I know that most of my father’s generation truly believed in the cause they were fighting for or supporting at home through austerities, and I think that was very different from the turmoil surrounding what seemed to many of us the senseless war and loss of life in Vietnam. Of course there are shades of gray in any fight, but it does seem that the stakes were much clearer in World War II than in any of the major conflicts since then. This journey with my father certainly made me rethink some of my assumptions, and now I’m proud to honor my father and all veterans who have laid their lives on the line.