At 6 a.m., the flight’s already running an hour late. "Hurry up and wait — that’s what we’re used to!" one Marine quips.
To pass the time, someone offers to play the hymns of the various military branches represented here today: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. Old men rise from their seats and stand at attention when their branch’s anthem comes on, the medals on their caps glinting under the fluorescent glare as they sing along to lyrics that were committed to memory decades ago.
Seventy-two veterans are waiting to board a charter plane to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight South Florida, a nonprofit whose mission is to honor veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War by escorting them to the memorials erected to commemorate them and those left behind.
Seven of the veterans in the group fought in the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. Sixty-four served during the Vietnam conflict of 1961 to 1975. This is the first Honor Flight in years without a single World War II veteran — those still alive are over 100 years old, and many are too concerned about COVID-19's Delta variant to pile into a pressure-sealed airplane.
Volunteers greet men in black caps, denoting their status as veterans, as they arrive at the gate for continental breakfast. Donald Carney, a former Marine helicopter technician and gunner who served in Quảng Trị Province in Vietnam, arrives with his daughter on a bus from his home in Deerfield Beach. His daughter wears a red cap to signal that she's a guardian, a chaperone meant to watch over Carney on his big day.
Twenty-nine-year-old Zackrey Powers cracks jokes while he sits beside his grandfather, Thomas Powers, who also served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Zackrey is one of several young men on the trip whose forefathers fought in war and have chosen to volunteer their time as a guardian to commemorate their sacrifices. Other young men in red caps sit beside their assigned veterans, some of them firefighters, police officers, Boy Scout leaders, and Scout troop members. Some have served in the military, some intend to, others respect the institutions but have never enlisted.
A number of women have volunteered to be guardians, but only one woman in a black cap waits to board the plane. Sue Barnes Aldoroty served as an Army nurse in Vietnam before women were allowed to become soldiers. Today marks one of few occasions when she’ll be honored as a veteran alongside the boys.
Angel Rodriguez sits in an airport chair, away from the small cliques of men trading war stories, sipping his drink of choice from a Dunkin' Donuts paper cup: black coffee, two sugars. Bright yellow letters on his hat make it easy for others to know where and when he fought for his country: "VIETNAM VETERAN."
"There was a lot of spitting on us, and calling us 'baby killers' when we came back. I would avoid places where I wasn’t welcome as a veteran."
Honor Flight volunteers pass by and thank him for his service — a relatively new line for the 72-year-old Marine and his fellow Vietnam veterans. While it’s customary to thank veterans for their service, Vietnam veterans specifically are told "welcome home" to make up for the welcome many never received after returning from the jungles half a world away, because theirs was an unpopular war.
When soldiers first came back from Vietnam, many were disrespected, ignored, or reviled. Scores of protesters around the country criticized a prolonged conflict that the American people knew little about, and a draft system that conscripted young men to commit violence abroad. Honor Flight, and other programs like it, serve as an effort to right the wrongs done to veterans of the Vietnam war, and to bestow upon them an honor long deferred.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
By noon, the veterans have disembarked after a two-hour flight and boarded a bus to the National Mall, where they pose for photos. Angel Rodriguez passes the names of 58,000 dead and missing soldiers printed on the roughly 500 feet of polished black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There's a cool breeze but as the midday sun peeks through gentle clouds, the memorial itself emanates heat.
Rodriguez's son, Angel Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps as a Marine and now works at the Pentagon, has joined him this afternoon. They stroll the grounds, passing other Honor Flight veterans and guardians, as well as park visitors, who are taking in the monument. A servicemember in camo fatigues reaches up and pushes a strip of wax paper against the grooves of a name and rubs a pencil along the paper’s surface to preserve the impression of the fallen soldier. Zackrey Powers does the same, etching the names of two of his grandfather’s friends who died in battle.
They were given the opportunity in advance to look up the location of their fallen comrades’ names on the sprawling wall and offered scraps of paper to etch the names to memorialize them. Rodriguez didn’t ask for wax paper. Though he knows the name of the man who owned the dry cleaner where he worked when he was 10 years old (David Rapaport), Rodriguez says he can’t recall who he was stationed with in Quảng Trị.
"I had friends that I met during boot camp and training. I had quite a few of them that didn't come back," Rodriguez explains. "And there might have been more than the ones that I knew that died in combat because once I left, I don't know what happened to them."
In 1968, when Rodriguez was 17, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served until 1973. He joined the Marines because he figured he was likely to be drafted, and he'd rather have joined a branch other than the Army. He admired the Marines’ "dress blues" uniforms and wanted one of his own. But the main reason he chose the Marines over the Air Force or Navy was born of a misunderstanding.
"We didn’t treat our Vietnam and Korean War-era veterans with the same respect and appreciation for their sacrifices, and they sacrificed a lot."
When he was passing the recruiters' tables, the Marine recruiter barked the branch’s iconic motto, "Semper Fi" — a shortened version of the Latin phrase "semper fidelis" or "forever faithful" — and Rodriguez misheard.
"He said 'Semper Fi!' and I heard '75!' I thought he was offering more money than the other guys, so I signed up with him," Rodriguez says with a chuckle.
Though Rodriguez served for five years, only seven months of that time was spent in Vietnam. He suffered a slipped disk in his back while loading cargo onto a helicopter on a mountainside. He was medevaced to Japan, the Philippines, and then finally home to Brooklyn, where he underwent back surgery before serving out the remainder of his five-year term of service.
Though he was born in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez spent most of his childhood in New York City, where he met his wife of 50 years, Felicita, whom he still refers to as his "high-school sweetheart."
Jobs were hard to come by for Vietnam veterans, but Rodriguez was eventually hired by a Citibank manager who was sympathetic to soldiers. The bank job took him from Brooklyn to Miami, where he’s lived for the majority of his adulthood. Now retired, Rodriguez stays active by volunteering and running the Military Hospitality Lounge, a rest area for soldiers, veterans, and their families at Miami International Airport. His volunteer work keeps him in touch with fellow veterans.
Rodriguez is happy to share details of his life, but when the topic of the violence he witnessed overseas arises, he deflects.
He's adamant that he has no interest in visiting Vietnam again.
"I was there already," he says. "I don’t need to go back."
When other veterans on the Honor Flight boast about being deployed amid the "Tet Offensive," a coordinated attack by North Vietnamese forces against U.S. military outposts that persisted for most of 1968 and proved to be a turning point in the war, Rodriguez, who was there during the attacks, says it’s nothing to brag about.
"Tet is not a trophy, it was just another battle," he says. "You just have to thank God you're still here."
He's more open about what came after he returned: disdain, dirty looks, discrimination.
"There was a lot of spitting on us, and calling us 'baby killers' when we came back," Rodriguez says. "I would avoid places where I wasn’t welcome as a veteran."
A dark-skinned Hispanic, Rodriguez says he never faced prejudice, racial or otherwise, until he returned home.
“When we got back we felt discrimination," he says. "World War II veterans were looked at better than us."
While his son, Angel Jr., was given a cooling-off period after his tour in Afghanistan to decompress and reorient himself to civilian life, Rodriguez says he and other Vietnam vets were offered no such respite or reconditioning.
"We were forgotten and we had issues — unresolvable issues, issues that were never addressed," he says. "Now the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] is paying the price for that today."
A few days before the Honor Flight trip, Rodriguez sits in a booth at a Denny’s not far from Miami International Airport. His back is to the wall, facing the main entrance, a soldierly habit. He asks the waitress for black coffee with two sugars and neatly arranges his forks and knife beside his breakfast: two well-toasted English muffins.
When another patron's cell phone goes off with sounds of gunshots, Rodriguez doesn’t flinch — years of therapy have conditioned him to be alert for triggers and remain composed. But some things still get to him. The gray hairs on his brown arm stand on end when he lists his triggers: fireworks, thunder, gunshots on the Fourth of July.
"Even seeing someone in a painful experience, like dying in a car crash — when you see the blood, all that brings flashbacks of what you saw while you were out there," he says.
Rodriguez is one of about 810,000 Vietnam veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That's roughly 30 percent of the 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam during the course of the war, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The disorder can be caused by trauma experienced in combat or by sexual trauma that occurred while in the military. Effects include anger issues, feeling on edge, and depressed or negative thoughts. Anywhere between 11 and 20 out of every 100 soldiers who served in the Iraq War suffer from PTSD, though that number may change as symptoms of PTSD appear later in life.
For Rodriguez, the symptoms didn’t show up until 20 years after his time overseas.
He found himself getting easily frustrated at people in traffic. His anger felt explosive. At home, he'd become testy with his wife and children. He got into so many arguments that he couldn’t hold a job; he'd argue with managers and get let go for questioning orders.
"I would be around for a few years in one company and get into a heavy fight, and I would end up being told I was no longer needed," Rodriguez says. "When I went to the VA and I explained all that to them, they knew exactly where I was coming from."
Years later, in therapy at the VA, Rodriguez learned to identify his triggers and practice coping skills to deal with stress and frustration. He exercises regularly — at age 72, he's remarkably fit — and volunteers his time to stay busy and keep his mind off his memories.
Donald Carney, the Marine helicopter technician, has his own hidden scars from the war. He was raised Catholic in New York but no longer attends church often or has much faith after his service.
Sue Aldoroty still cries regularly about the trauma she experienced while serving as an Army nurse in Vietnam — though the violence she faced was not in battle.
"I lost a lot of that in Nam," he says.
Carney, 72, recounts flying in choppers just above the jungle treetops in pitch blackness, medevacing soldiers who'd been gunned down or injured, then returning to base in the dead of night. He describes the job as "99 percent boredom, 1 percent sheer terror."
Like Rodriguez, Carney resists getting into the gory details of what happened in Vietnam but speaks plainly about how it stayed with him.
"I try not to think about it. Just thinking about it can be unnerving. You got in there and you did the job," he says. "At least I got to fly back to the hangar."
Sue Aldoroty, the only woman veteran on this Honor Flight trip, still cries regularly about the trauma she experienced while serving as an Army nurse in Vietnam — though the violence she faced did not take place in battle. While overseas, Aldoroty was raped by a serviceman, and when she became pregnant as a result, she was kicked out of the service.
"My whole career was ruined because of that," Aldoroty says. "It was traumatic for me to have to leave. I wanted to make it a career, and I felt like my whole life ended."
Aldoroty says that while sexual trauma from war wasn’t talked about when she was young, she now goes to therapy for victims of military sexual assault.
Yet even with all the trauma from her time in the Army, she still sees being a military nurse as one of the crowning achievements of her life and is especially proud that Honor Flight recognizes her service.
"It feels amazing, I’m so honored," the four-foot-nine woman says with a smile. "When I was in the service, nurses weren’t recognized, but now they are. I’m very proud."
Arlington National Cemetery
After leaving the Vietnam memorial, the private bus shuttles veterans to the day's final stop: Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's most famed resting place for military service members and veterans. Here they're treated to
a boxed lunch of pulled pork and brisket sandwiches from the aptly named Mission BBQ.
En route, the Honor Flight bus passes the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial but doesn't stop. Though the itinerary originally called for veterans to disembark and admire the statue of the historic image of four marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima, by 2 pm., the group is running behind schedule owing to morning delay. The veterans can only watch through the window as they pass by.
"Of course they’d cut out the Marine memorial. We always get the short end of the stick," one Marine vet jokes to a reception of chuckles from the bus.
This sort of jape about Marines was common throughout the day, mixed in with jabs about other branches and friendly competitions between the old soldiers.
"Wanna know what 'ARMY' stands for? Ain’t Ready for Marines Yet!" another man quips.
The veterans are jovial from the get-go, even amid monuments to the memory of so many comrades who couldn’t be here. Even though the veterans had never met before the trip, it’s as if they're linked together from a past life. Smiles and laughs abound the entire day, along with an unspoken pride in their service and gratitude for today's trip.
The experience is curated by the volunteers and staff that make up the Honor Flight South Florida program, which runs four flights a year in the spring and fall. Months of planning and fundraising go into a single trip, and guardians are trained well in advance to make sure their assigned veteran is having the best possible experience.
A week before the flight, guardians were instructed via Zoom training to take a wheelchair with them wherever they went, even if their veteran could walk, on the off chance they got tired and needed to rest. Guardians were also told to refer to the wheelchair as an "honor chair," to preserve the pride of their companion, who's still warring against the ravages of age. (Rodriguez refused to use his honor chair because it reminded him too much of being injured in Vietnam 50 years ago.)
T-shirts and bags given to guardians and veterans bear the phrase "One More Mission," a change from the previous tagline, "One Last Mission," in order to commemorate the event without a sense of finality.
When the bus arrives at Arlington, veterans and guardians survey the grounds. All the Honor Flight participants are invited to a ceremony scheduled for 3 p.m.: the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which serves as a stand-in memorial for all U.S. soldiers who died in war but were never identified. Built 100 years ago this November, after World War I, the tomb is guarded by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the "Old Guard," who patrol the marble sarcophagus in shifts 24 hours a day.
"Some servicemen in Vietnam would wait until the end for a loved one to send something, and when they didn’t get anything, it was bad."
The 142 veterans and guardians gather in front of the tomb to watch the proceedings. Rodriguez agrees, reluctantly, to sit in his honor chair for a better view. Veterans are given a front-row spot, and a hush falls over the group for the solemn ritual.
A breeze blows autumn leaves onto the pavement as a guard commander in sterling black uniform emerges from behind the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater to relieve the current guard, a thin young man in identical uniform, black sunglasses on his shaved head, and a brown rifle slung across his shoulder. Another young man with a rifle follows behind the commander, and the veterans watch in reverence and familiarity as the superior inspects his subordinate’s firearm for marks with pristine white gloves. Satisfied, he instructs the retiring sentinel to repeat his orders to the new sentinel, who then begins his shift by marching 21 steps in each direction in front of the tomb — a reference to the 21-gun salute bestowed upon fallen soldiers.
All is quiet, save for the steps of the commander’s polished black boots and a nearly imperceptible scrape as he passes the black-capped veterans. The commander and guards don’t speak except for their scripted lines, but they’ve been told about their VIP audience. With a deliberate scratch of his metal-plated boot against cement, the commander thanks his predecessors for their service.
By 8 p.m., veterans and guardians have been bused back to the airport and boarded the charter flight back to Miami. Rodriguez and Carney have settled back into their seats after a long day zipping around the nation’s capital. The septuagenarians are tired and try their best to catch some winks while the cabin lights are low. But between snoozes, they trade stories about growing up in Brooklyn and how they were both stationed in Quảng Trị. It's surprising they never met until today.
Suddenly, they're interrupted by a holler they know all too well: "Mail call!"
Walking up and down the aisle, Honor Flight volunteers call out the names of the veterans aboard and begin handing out large white envelopes with messages and designs drawn in marker. Soldiers stationed abroad, especially before the advent of cell phones, wait eagerly for this time of day when they hope to hear their name and read letters from loved ones back home.
Rodriguez is one of the first to receive his envelope, which is filled with handwritten cards from schoolchildren thanking him for protecting them. They refer to him as a hero.
While Rodriguez smiles and reads the well-wishes, Carney’s eyes are fixed squarely on the volunteer carrying the envelopes. His name hasn’t been called, and his fingers tap a restless beat on the seat table as he listens intently.
"I got a letter every week, but some servicemen in Vietnam would wait until the end for a loved one to send something," Rodriguez explains. "And when they didn’t get anything, it was bad."
Finally, a shout calls out for "Donald Carney!" The Marine raises his hand to grab his envelope. It comes with a handmade necklace/sign with his name. He places it over his head, turns, and jokes, "For when I go crazy." A smile flickers across his lips.
Zackrey Powers watches as his grandfather, Thomas Powers, open his own envelope. The trip has brought them closer than they’d been before, even closer than when Zackrey enlisted in the Air Force seven years ago.
"We didn’t treat our Vietnam and Korean War-era veterans with the same respect and appreciation for their sacrifices, and they sacrificed a lot."
Growing up, Powers says, his grandfather didn’t talk much about his time in Vietnam and struggled with substance abuse. Zackery joined the Air Force to escape poverty and the cold winters in Columbus, Ohio. But when he finished his tour, his grandfather opened up to him.
"He was a proud Marine, but he didn’t really talk about what happened out there until I got back in 2018," Powers explains.
The younger Powers was stationed in Germany but saw combat in Syria and Mali amid a series of regional conflicts involving the U.S. Returning to the States, Powers was given a decompression period of two weeks and was asked whether he was experiencing PTSD symptoms. At the time he said no, but symptoms showed up later when he enrolled for classes at Florida International University.
"I’d wake up and think I was in a different place. I’d be walking down the middle of [the student union] and break down because there were too many people," he recounts. "I had to kneel down in a corner until it subsided."
He received therapy from the VA and now has his PTSD down to a manageable level. Last year, 1.7 million veterans received mental-health assistance from the VA for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other issues stemming from their service. This help, alongside constant gratitude for his service, is a privilege Powers knows people like his grandfather didn’t receive.
"As modern veterans, we get those thanks and appreciation from random strangers all the time," Powers says. "We didn’t treat our Vietnam and Korean War-era veterans with the same respect and appreciation for their sacrifices, and they sacrificed a lot."
Wheels touch down in Miami at 10 p.m., and the veterans prepare to shuttle back to their homes. But there’s one more surprise waiting for them at the gate.
Rodriguez, Carney, Aldoroty, Powers, and the other passengers emerge from the gate to the sound of fanfare and applause as a crowd has gathered to give the veterans one final sendoff on their day. Servicemembers in formal black uniforms and white pants salute as they pass, and family members yell their thanks and love to veterans they've never met.
Rodriguez beams as he waves to a family holding a sign with a now-familiar message: "Welcome Home."