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Year’s first Eastern Iowa Honor Flight elicits memories, gratitude
Veterans who flew to Washington tell their stories
WASHINGTON — Decades after they last served, the veterans of the first Eastern Iowa Honor Flight of the year this month had a new mission to confront: a barrage of thank-yous in every form they could imagine.
Some aboard Tuesday’s flight from Cedar Rapids to Washington, D.C., found the dignity they were robbed of 50 years ago. Others confronted healing moments long overdue. Most realized that their service to their country was worth more than they ever knew.
These are their stories — flashbacks, memories, anecdotes and legacies that span nearly 78 years.
Frequent flyer club
For Earl Mefford, the only World War II veteran on this spring’s scheduled Honor Flights, the trip was his first time flying commercially in his 97 years. When he was in the service from 1944 to 1946, the Hedrick resident rode in a Douglas C-47 Skytrain’s “boxcar.”
He was drafted at 19. All but two boys in his high school class were drafted. “They were waiting for us to graduate,” he said. “Anybody that was warm passed their physical.”
He passed his the first time, even with a double hernia that wasn’t discovered until a later physical.
“They didn’t want to find it,” he said with a chuckle.
After spending time at a hospital, having finished less than half of basic training, he worked as a guard at a prisoner camp. After coming home at about age 21, he worked his whole life as a livestock farmer.
Mefford saw the World War II Memorial when it was finished nearly 18 years ago. But this flight would be different, he said.
“They all realize what it took to put the monuments there,” he said. “Most of the vets wouldn’t take a million dollars for their experience, but they wouldn’t give a nickel to do it again.”
And with living WW II veterans few and far between — Mefford is one of the youngest still alive — he said some knowledge has been lost with the passing of the Greatest Generation.
“I don’t know what to tell (the next generation) because we continue to have wars. I don’t know what we fought for,” he said. “I fought for freedom and a lasting peace.”
As long as there’s politics, he said there will never be lasting peace.
From the exit of Reagan International Airport, “The Marines’ Hymn” rallied a handful of people as it blared from a small boombox, echoing down through the terminal hallway. It was a small crowd — four people — but it was better than some showings on flights last fall. What they lacked in numbers they delivered in spirit.
Among them was University of Iowa graduate Maria Temiquel, an Alexandria, Va., resident who had been greeting Honor Flights for 15 years. After bringing perhaps the loudest voice to the airport’s hallways, she tried to hold back unexpected tears when asked to explain why she shows up year after year.
“We have to thank them for their service, let them know what … they haven’t been forgotten,” she said.
Nearby, Kirk Hanlin waited to surprise veteran Garry Meredith, his high school cross-country coach from the 1970s, with a sign bearing “Coach Meredith.”
Where Hanlin was a failing student in Hamilton, Ill., Meredith was a history teacher young in his career after serving in Vietnam. Thanks to the veteran’s determination, he had a profound effect on the course of the student’s life.
“He made us believe in ourselves, that we could do more, that we could do better,” Hanlin said, wearing a jacket with the seal of Camp David Presidential Retreat.
Thanks to the veteran’s difference, Hanlin went on to serve as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton. He later served with Secretary Tom Vilsack at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under an Obama administration appointment.
Hanlin’s surprise was just one of the ways that veterans realized their impact on the civilian world that day.
Female vet inspired a heritage
Marilyn Dellamuth applied to be on the Honor Flight several years ago, never expecting to be picked. Like the service of many women during the Vietnam War, she expected to be overlooked.
“The guys that were killed in action, maimed, they were the ones that were heroes,” she said.
A medic, she quickly scaled the ranks despite an often hostile environment for women in the Army. From Fort Meyer, Va., she saw the real, gruesome consequences of war on the homefront.
“We would always get called lots of names,” she said. “They accused (women) of being gay, being a whore — that’s what they used to call us.”
She always felt guilty that she wasn’t able to use her training to help overseas the way male medics could. But as a female medic, she was not allowed to go overseas.
The Blairstown resident found her role in comforting the wounded, reassuring amputees and monitoring a veteran with periodic X-rays, to make sure a bullet didn’t move closer to his spine.
“It was heartbreaking, but you had to make them feel they were no different from anybody else, that they were just as qualified as anybody,” she said. “You made them feel that they were worth going, to be honored … and realize that someone did care about them and what they did.”
Even when women were systematically excluded from full participation in serving their country, she made others feel as good about themselves as she could. For her role in serving her country, the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight’s only female veteran was recognized at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
That recognition helped make up for the lack of recognition she went without in the service, even if it was long overdue, she said.
In 1966, she enlisted in the Army for opportunity when she couldn’t afford college. The benefits of Army medical experience didn’t translate to a civilian career as well as promised. When she returned home, she did not get into a nursing program she had applied for at Kirkwood Community College.
Though she served for only three years, her service birthed a family heritage of military service. Her only son pursued a prosperous military career and married his wife in the service. All three of her grandchildren have followed in her foot steps, one of whom just graduated from West Point.
Thanks only to a letter she received during the Honor Flight’s mail call on the flight home Tuesday to Cedar Rapids, she now knows it was all because she inspired her son.
After working various jobs most of her life and surviving an aneurysm in 2009, Dellamuth became an emergency medical technician in 2012 at 64 years old — the oldest woman on her crew.
“I know who I am,” was the mantra that rebuffed the name calling in the ‘60s. Little did she know that fortitude was the source of strength that would inspire an entire family to serve, too.
In the black abyss reflecting the names of 58,318 soldiers on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, referred to by Vietnam vets as “The Wall,” each surviving Vietnam veteran saw a reflection of themselves among the dead and missing.
For the era of veterans that now makes up the majority of Honor Flight veterans, it could’ve been them — but it wasn’t. And survivor’s guilt comes in many forms for veterans.
Some remembered the good times evoked by those names. Others could only think about the lives cut short with little to show for it.
Air Force veteran Dave Homan of Fontanelle searched for the name of his childhood friend, Steven Edwards. Edwards was killed four months after he went into the Vietnam War at 19.
“I always said I was going to visit him. I finally got to,” Homan said as his voice broke.
After 50 years, he drew from the experience the only thing he could: a paper impression of his friend’s name rubbed in graphite.
Navy veteran Tom Walsh of Dubuque looked at the names of 134 of his shipmates in July 1967, when he was just 19 in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin. A fire broke out on board the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier after a Zuni rocket fired, striking an aircraft fuel tank. Flammable jet fuel flooded across the deck, triggering a chain reaction of explosions that also injured 161.
“I was new on the ship. I put a lot of these guys in body bags,” he said. There was no way he could get rubbings of all the names.
Fairbank resident and Vietnam veteran Charlie Kimball stared intently with a sincere a look in his eyes that couldn’t be hidden by sunglasses and the shade of a cap. There, he found the panel with the 16 names he was looking for.
They were names of veterans killed in the Battle of la Drang in November 1965, which had found on a collectible coin he bought from a coin shop.
Kimball, who cruised up and down the Demilitarized Zone during his service from 1968 to 1973, never knew the men. But finding them meant as much as finding anyone he knew because it meant the sacrifice of veterans in Vietnam wasn’t forgotten — no matter who they were.
“They threw (expletive) on us when we got home,” he said. “You didn’t dare walk around with your uniform on.”
Seeing those names on the wall means, after the treatment they endured, that they weren’t forgotten. Even if there hadn’t been anyone at the airports to greet them with jubilation, their names were etched into stone.
When the vets returned Tuesday night to Cedar Rapids, hundreds lined the hallway of The Eastern Iowa Airport to welcome them home with enthusiasm unparalleled in Washington.
Some children handed out boxes of Girl Scout cookies to returning veterans; others brought flowers. The farther down the line veterans moved to the baggage claim area, the more their smiles turned to looks of disbelief, reluctant tears or futile attempts to hold them back in a line that never seemed to end.
Even for the most stoic soldiers, the response of children was able to breach the floodgates holding back emotions.
“Kids need more of that appreciation. It’s (part of) our democracy,” said veteran Dave Pecinovsky of Cresco.
“Welcome home!” boomed the hearty voice of Arlington, Iowa, resident Jan Breitsprecher toward the end of the line, offering a firm handshake to each one.
This time, when thanked for their service, many of the veterans had built up the confidence to respond with “you’re welcome,” instead of the “thank you” they would have echoed at the beginning of the day.
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