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Throngs Welcome Vietnam-Era Vets
July 30, 2016 - It was a welcome that made up for being late. Very late.
Nearly 100 Vietnam-era veterans returned to Wittman Regional Airport Friday night, greeted by throngs of people waving, clapping, and cheering their support.
The Old Glory Honor Flight, partnered with EAA and American Airlines, was part of AirVenture’s Salute to Veterans Day. The flight took the veterans to Washington, D.C., for the day to visit various war memorials and honor them for their service and sacrifices.
Families, friends, active duty and reserve military from all branches, and supporters lined a pathway leading from the tarmac to the Ford stage, where the vets were later treated to a concert. Holding up signs that welcomed home the heroes, and waving U.S. flags in the air, family and friends eagerly awaited the return of their loved ones.
The Dan Rasmussen crowd of supporters grew larger as the minutes drew nearer to his return. While only his wife and grandson had been there at 6:30 a.m. to see him off, the family now totaled 27, including six children and 13 grandchildren. “My grandson gave up his last day of Boy Scout camp to be here this morning,” said Kathleen Rasmussen, Dan’s wife. “Dan doesn’t talk a lot about Vietnam, but he is proud of his service. And the kids and I are certainly proud of him.”
Dan’s daughter, Alysia Pillsbury, signed him up for the Honor Flight, and she spent the day on the Old Glory Honor Flight’s Facebook page, looking at what he and the others were doing. “They had a (water cannon) salute when they arrived in Washington,” she said, adding that hundreds of supporters greeted them at the airport.
But those numbers paled in comparison to the crowd that waited on the AirVenture grounds.
Wearing a Vietnam veteran hat, Gary Bodinger of Stockbridge, Wisconsin, was in the front row with his family to support his longtime friend and fellow veteran, Francis Casper of Malone, Wisconsin, who took part in the Honor Flight. “It is an honor to be here,” he said. “There was no applause when we returned from the war. I flew into Green Bay in 1969 with two Green Bay Packers, Donny Anderson and John Brockington. There was a lot of fanfare, but it was all for those two joining the Packers.”
Yesterday, as the plane turned from the runway, a fire truck marked its arrival with a water cannon salute. As it came to a stop and ramp workers chocked the wheels, people everywhere held up cameras, video cameras, smart phones, and iPads to take pictures. Even the plane’s pilots got into the act, opening up the cockpit window, unfurling U.S. flags, and taking photos of the large crowd gathered.
With bagpipe music playing, and airplanes flying above, the group waited patiently as members of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh football team lifted wheelchairs up to the ramp and helped transport some of the first veterans.
With eyes strained as family members tried to locate their loved ones, the applause and cheering were continuous until all 100 were off the plane.
“It’s Uncle Neal!” a woman exclaimed. “Look, it’s him!”
Others shouted, “Thank you for your service!”
While there were a few tears from the veterans, there were many smiles and hugs.
Tony Fruzyna, of Green Bay, said the Honor Flight was also more than he expected. “The whole day was absolutely wonderful; it’s impossible to pick out one favorite part.” But the welcome home was certainly top of his list.
“I didn’t expect this many people,” he said, noting that about 20 family members came for him.
Lew Tesch, of Appleton, returned in 1961 after serving in Army aviation in France. He said the Honor Flight was an amazing experience. “The day was so beautiful that I can’t even describe it,” he said. “When we landed in Washington, D.C., they paid tribute to us. When we got off the plane, there were bands playing and hundreds of people waiting to greet us."
Veteran Larry Linder, of West Bend, Wisconsin, said he, too, was overwhelmed by the support of the people who came out to recognize him and the other veterans.“It was more than I expected,” Linder said. The welcome to Washington, D.C., and a welcome back in Oshkosh certainly stand out, he said, since when he returned from Vietnam in 1971, there really wasn’t any celebration since the war was so controversial in the United States. “They even tried to fly the Vietnam veterans home at night to keep our return quiet.”