By Lynette M Loomis
At the Frederick Douglass – Greater Rochester International Airport in June, a motorcycle procession, with American flags flying, rides through the roads. In the airport, hundreds of people gather. A group of veterans from World War II through the Vietnam War era walk proudly to the cheers of the waiting crowd. Tears flow and smiles widen. Hands are shaken. Veterans are thanked.
This is Honor Flight Rochester.
Many veterans were never welcomed back to America. There were no local ticker-tape parades, especially for Vietnam vets. Their return home was emotionally devastating as they were scorned and even spit on.
“For many veterans, this is a long-delayed thank-you that they never received,” said Richard Stewart, president of Honor Flight Rochester.
Bob O’Brien, 76, lives in Spencerport. He served as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and was proud of his service in the military. When he came home in 1971, he recalled, “Veterans were not treated with the respect they deserved. However, if a group of Marines came home together, they were not harassed, probably not a good thing to do… Now people say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ The first time it happened to me it was a nice surprise.”
America has recognized the difference between supporting a war and supporting a soldier and its veterans. The purpose of Honor Flight is to take veterans on their “Trip of a Lifetime.” It is an opportunity for vets to visit and reflect together at the memorials built in their (and that of previous wars’ veterans) honor, in Washington, D.C.
Typically, Honor Flight Rochester sponsors six flights of 60 veterans, annually. Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian, a person between the ages of 18 to 70, a family member (not the spouse), friend or volunteer, to ensure the safety of each veteran.
They start at 4 a.m. on Saturday, June 17, with breakfast at the airport by Dunkin Donuts, travel to Baltimore and are motor coached to the war memorials in Washington, DC, for a full day. Then the three motorcoaches of Mission 78 return late afternoon to BWI Airport Hilton Hotel (Baltimore) for a heroes banquet. The vets arise early on Sunday morning for a huge breakfast buffet, then are shuttled to BWI Airport for their return flight to Rochester.
The return to Rochester is an emotional experience for everyone.
The Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle brigade of veterans, ride around the airport road with American flags flying. The veterans are met and cheered by hundreds of well-wishers comprised of Vietnam veterans of America-Chapter 20 members and previous Honor Flight vets, VFW and American Legion Post members, fire department bands, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, family, friends and other well-wishers. The closing ceremony is in the International Arrivals Hall and involves a local TV media personality as emcee, county and state representatives and an interesting keynote speaker. This is the welcome veterans will never forget.
Stewart believes there can be profound meaning for the veterans and our community beyond the obvious.
Uniquely, Honor Flight Rochester provides the younger generation with the opportunity to say thank you to the older generation for their service and sacrifice. Many of the younger generation are the children of veterans and were not yet born when their fathers and grandfathers served.
Stewart said that the Rochester hub is 100% volunteer with more than 800 active participants: There is no paid staff. Legacy Senior Living at Clover Blossom and the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport provide meeting room space at no charge.
“It costs around at $500,000 for six missions, each carrying 60 veterans with their 60 guardians and an Honor Flight Crew of 18,” he said. “The largest costs are for transportation and accommodation. Honor Flight Rochester is in this for long haul and currently has 1,000 veterans on our fly list.”
My brother Lee Loomis, 77, now lives in Pittsford. He was drafted on Dec. 5, 1968, spent 15 months at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, in March 1970.
He moved around South Vietnam; Hue, Phu-Bai, Da Nang and finally “China Beach,” where he was assigned to the US Army Strategic Communications Facility at Da Nang (“The Da Nang Signal Company”).
After almost six months in ‘Nam, he was separated from active duty and eventually honorably discharged. Loomis expressed his positive thoughts on Honor Flight.
“Honor Flight was a unique, memorable and very moving experience, unlike any I’ve ever had before. It was the ‘home coming’ we had been denied, following our military service, as we each came home, alone, into an America that had begun identifying ‘The warriors, with the war they had grown to hate.’ We were frequently discriminated against and often rejected by the communities, industries, and even the veterans’ organizations that had been profiting from the protracted economic boom of the Vietnam War,” he said.
“Honor Flight provided a taste of a ‘brotherhood’ we had been missing, a warmth flowing from our families and community and a special closure to a conscious choice we had each made, long-ago, one that we might have even been doubting, for a half-century,” he added.
For Loomis, there were several touching moments. He said that the first was the opportunity that Honor Flight Rochester’s mission 78 provided for him to share this important experience with his 18-year-old grandson, Ben Cave.
“Feeling his love and caring for me during the journey and watching as he interacted with the other veterans and their guardians was very special,” he said. “Second, was the opportunity Ben and I both had to listen, react to, and share experiences with other veterans and their guardians as we visited the US War Memorials on our trip.”
Eighteen-year-old Cave said, “The weekend I spent with my grandfather and many other veterans was a warm and thought-provoking experience. Never before had I been able to engage with so many first-hand accounts of history. The brotherhood and camaraderie shared by those veterans is something that can never be broken and I am proud not only to have had the opportunity to speak with these heroes, but also to be related to one.
“The arrival ceremony back into the airport in Rochester was the most touching part of the weekend for me. There were a large number of people that showed up to celebrate the veterans and give them the welcome home that they deserved decades ago. Being able to walk with my grandfather down the airport terminal with my family there watching is something that I will never forget.”
Loomis relayed some of the words and feelings expressed by fellow veterans during their time together. For instance: “As we veterans get older, we mostly only remember and talk about the funny stuff that we saw and did; it wasn’t always that funny.”
Standing at the Vietnam Memorial Wall: “These are the REAL heroes of the war in ‘Nam.”
On Sunday afternoon, at the Rochester Airport, homecoming parade: “Now, at last, I’m feeling like I’m finally home.”
Nancy Damore, 78, of Rochester explained her reason for volunteering in a variety of roles for Honor Flight.
“My brother is a Vietnam War veteran and I have always been taken with the TV ads for veterans’ organizations such as Wounded Warriors. I realized that their needs did not match what I had to offer. I was excited to learn from the internet about a local opportunity, Honor Flight Rochester,” she said. “I have worked in crowd control and at the merchandise table at the airport. As a caller I worked with veterans to tell them about their upcoming trip, including the itinerary and the process for selecting a guardian. Now I am one of the people who cheer the veterans as they parade through the airport.”
Miguel Llano, 75, lives in Brighton. He was raised in Geneva when his family moved from Puerto Rico as part of Operation Bootstrap. His father worked at the Seneca Army Depot. Llano was drafted when he was 19 and served 32 years in the Army. He was a radio operator in Vietnam and served 1.5 tours. (He extended his Vietnam tour so his brother would not have to go). He also served as a master sergeant in Desert Storm. In addition to the Bronze Star for Valor, he was awarded 13 other commendations.
“I had a wonderful surprise during Honor Flight. Another vet heard my name on the speaker in the dining room,” he said. It was his childhood friend Alberto Ortiz Baez who he hadn’t seen in more than 50 years. “We had been friends years ago in Geneva and lost touch. To see him on the Honor Flight was a shock — a wonderful one.
“My 43-year-old son, Miguel, was my guardian. It was great to spend time with him and talk about things I had never shared with him when he was younger. He said it was amazing how we saw men that his father had never met and yet there was an immediate bond because of their shared experience. When I first came home decades ago, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. People walked away from us. Other guys had it worse. When we arrived home this time, we were cheered and thanked. He said, ‘Dad, write a book for your grandchildren. You have seen and done so much.’”
His granddaughter Amaya said, “I knew about the Vietnam War, but my papi never talked about it. Being there for him now was very important to me.”
Funding for Honor Flight comes from individual donations, testamentary bequests, corporations, grants, employer matches, military organizations (Vietnam Veterans of America-Chapter 20, American Legion Posts, VFW Posts), clubs and organizations, fire departments, schools, churches, scouts and service clubs.
n To learn about how you may volunteer, or to make a donation, visit https://honorflightrochester.org