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Vietnam Vets Spend Emotional Day in D.C.

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 28, 2018 - Tears, hugs, and belated thanks. That’s what the 2018 Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight was all about.

The flight, carrying 130 Vietnam-era Wisconsin veterans and their caregivers, arrived back at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh about 6:45 p.m. Friday, to see thousands of conventiongoers and their families lining Boeing Plaza, many holding up signs of love or thanks. The welcome home capped off a day that began at 5 a.m. for the vets.

And what a day it was. The American Airlines direct flight from Oshkosh to Washington National Airport, staffed entirely by American Airlines volunteers, landed in Washington, D.C., to a water cannon salute, a band playing, and hundreds of people welcoming them to the nation’s capital and thanking them for their service. Then the group was whisked away in four buses to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. From there they went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to see “The Price of Freedom” exhibit and the American flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In between was a quick tour of the city, and then the group visited Arlington National Cemetery to watch the changing of the guard and the Air Force Memorial that overlooks the Pentagon. Then it was back to the airport for the trip home. Throughout it all, a very helpful National Park Service police escort made sure the group got wherever they needed to go quickly.

Ted Gray, of Weyauwega, served in the Navy in Vietnam, Texas, Canada, and Mexico from 1971-94. He said he doesn’t talk about his war experiences, particularly about when he was stationed in Vietnam, because he doesn’t want to remember the nightmares of being in the front lines, or of the ship barely making it back to the bay when one of the guns blew. “But today I’m hoping I finally got rid of some of those bad memories,” he said.

Gray also admitted to being disgusted that it took people so long to thank the Vietnam veterans for their service.

“I see all these newer vets coming home and people standing there and greeting them,” he said. “But all I got when I returned home was a kick in the butt. No one showed up.”

Four of the Bellin brothers were on the Honor Flight. Bernie Bellin, of Franklin; Gary Bellin, of Sturgeon Bay; Ron Bellin, of Luxemburg; and Bob Bellin, of Allouez, served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

Bernie Bellin, who worked as an Army company clerk in Can Tho of the Mekong Delta from 1968-69, placed a flower near a friend’s name on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was a somber moment, not only for him, but for many of the veterans who had come with lists of former friends and family members who were killed in action.

“Today has been very moving and emotional,” Bernie said. “I wasn’t ready for my reaction at the wall since it’s been 50 years, and I had been here before. I think it’s because we’re all here together.”

Gary Bellin served as a corpsman in the Navy from 1967-69 in the West Pacific. It was his job to keep the troops supplied and back them up.

He said he and his brothers will occasionally talk about their days in the military. “But it’s only about the humorous situations; the rest we prefer to forget.”

He had never been to the wall before, and said it was difficult to see names that he knew. It was also difficult to think about the welcome home he received in ’69.

“It wasn’t good,” he said, as he looked away and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, he explained, “We were met at the gate in Chicago by a couple hundred hippies, calling us all kinds of names.”

Bernie’s son, Adam Bellin, a reservist assigned to the 6th Fleet, Norfolk, Virginia, came to share in the day, as did his cousin, Brad, from Richmond, Virginia. Adam said you couldn’t keep him away from an opportunity to share this day with his dad and uncles.

“How can one veteran not say thanks to another?” he asked. “The Honor Flight is such a great way for the country to thank the Vietnam guys for what they did.”

Vernon Steffes, from St. Peter, served in the Army and said he isn’t sure how he got out of Vietnam and Cambodia alive in 1967. Friday’s Honor Flight made him appreciate the fact even more as he looked up names on the wall of friends killed during the war.

“There were a number of times I should have been killed,” he said. “But somebody was just looking out for me.”

Darrel Karas, of Brussels, served in the Army in Germany during the Vietnam War era, from 1969-71. “I was the commanding officer’s driver,” he said, and admitted he was lucky. “When I was in basic training, a car broke down on the side of the road, so me and my buddy fixed it,” he said. He finished the rest of his training, and then got sick and was hospitalized for three weeks.

The doctors said he couldn’t handle the stress of Vietnam, and the officer giving out orders happened to be the same one whose car he had fixed back in basic training. “He remembered me and said I could go into the motor pool. The wife and I went to church a lot and still do to this day to say thank you for that.”

But that didn’t mean Karas didn’t see any horror. He ended up taking soldiers whose tours of duty were over to the Frankfurt airport, and picking up ones who were just starting. “Some of the guys coming back from Vietnam were messed up from the war,” he said. Their whole companies would be slaughtered, and they’d have flashbacks, or they’d suffer the side effects from being exposed to Agent Orange or from taking drugs.

Karas, however, also has a lot of good memories of he and his wife going out for a beer and brat with friends, or traveling Europe with his parents.

“I still think of how lucky I was, and I tell myself I’ve been living the dream every day.”

Bob Fritsch, of Appleton, worked as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force from 1965-69. He said he was one of the lucky ones, too, since he was stationed in Texas, Tennessee, and Hawaii during the war.

In Hawaii, he worked the midnight shift, maintaining airplanes going to or from Vietnam. Whenever he’d fix a lot of planes damaged by enemy artillery, the next day a plane would come in loaded with people in caskets. “On the news you would hear that just a certain number of people died, but then you’d see all the caskets and question those numbers,” he said.

Fritsch said the Honor Flight was his first trip to Washington, D.C., and he couldn’t decide on a favorite part of the day. “It was everything: the people who met us at the airport, the memorials, the number of people interred at Arlington. But the wall really got to me.”

His brother was also stationed in Vietnam, and had the honor of escorting a classmate’s body home to DePere. Fritsch really wanted to find that classmate’s name on the wall, but he couldn’t find it on the app.

“Then all at once I saw another person doing a rubbing, and it was the guy from DePere,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I was that lucky to find it. Maybe I should also buy a lottery ticket today.”

Sharon A. Woelfel-Nett, of Chilton, worked in the Air Force as an inventory management specialist from 1973-80. She said a lot of people don’t realize she was former military, but noted that in the last five years, more and more people are thanking her for her service.

“I think it’s because of the Honor Flights that we’re seeing more and more appreciation of veterans,” she said, adding that they do an excellent job of honoring all veterans.

She said she appreciated the Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight, and had only one small complaint. “The day just went too fast.”