Written by David Hammer | July 7, 2017
Just before midnight on July 4, my son drove me from our Columbia home to the Marriott, where 109 other veterans and I would meet our hosts and guardians for the 47th Central Missouri Honor Flight. Misgivings I had held for years about taking this trip quickly had been washed away two weeks before in the orientation meeting. Rampant positivity and overflowing good will set the tone for the orientation and were on full display again on the 4th. They were to remain during the day and be the signature of the shared veteran experience. Over and over again we were told that this was our day, and the way people had chosen to say, “Thank you for serving us and we’re sorry we didn’t welcome you home long ago.” At different points for all of us, we began to believe it, and then we began to accept it.
The trip was very positive, healing, and very emotional. It has entered my personal archives as one of the best days of my life. It was a life-changing day. The emotional highs during the trip were fast and profound. Time will be required to sort through and fully appreciate that amazing day, but, as quickly as possible I wanted to post my thanks and appreciation to the scores of volunteers and hundreds of donors who made the miracle happen. I am in awe of what you did and the way you did it, and will retain my gratitude so long as my aging memory bank is on recall. Other blogs about this experience will follow.
Behind the countless volunteers, both seen and unseen, during the trip, were the unspoken kindness and generosity of the many Missourians who donated money for this amazing gift to veterans. We were told before the trip that this was the 47th Honor Flight, and that the 109 of us would push the total number of Missouri veterans who have made the flight to more than 3000. Twelve of us were Korean War veterans, and the other 97 were Viet Nam era veterans. Since 2009, more than $3 million has been donated for this work.
The thought that is resonating most strongly with me today is gratitude. My work with All the Way Home, trying to motivate civilians to help heal the invisible wounds of war — moral injury, soul wounds, and Post-Traumatic Stress — that are carried by combat veterans and those who work most closely with them, often has been frustrating. I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone cares.
Sitting in stunned amazement with the other veterans as we traveled back to Columbia from Lambert Field on Wednesday night, I had no doubt that many Mid-Missourians care. The trip from Kingdom City to the Marriott was beyond description. More than 400 motorcycles joined our small convoy at Kingdom City, the cyclists waving and gunning their engines as they sped past us in the left lane of I-70. American flags flew on almost every bike. Every exit/entry ramp was blocked by Missouri State Highway Patrol with flashing lights. There would be nothing but the buses full of veterans, the cyclists and the police sharing the road for the final 25 miles of the trip. The moderator on the bus told us with pride in his own voice, “The Missouri State Highway Patrol wants you to know that tonight, you own the interstate between Kingdom City and Columbia, and we are here to thank you, honor you and take you home.” Fireworks were frequent, and were almost non-stop once we approached Columbia. Motorists and others lined the road, waving flags, flashing headlights and setting off fireworks. The three score wizened, graying veterans on the bus, who already had bonded through the shared memories of long ago and the healing events of the day, shed tears, sighs, and spontaneous shouts and grunts of excitement, surprise, thanks and awe. What a ride! What an experience! What a day! What a community!
A prevailing, shared thought throughout the day had been wonder and disbelief that it had been nearly 50 years since our youth was halted and forever clouded by our participation in the military during the time of a hugely unpopular war. Unspoken was the sad realization that for many of us, particularly those of us who were in combat, those five decades were lived with a shadow on our hearts and souls. During that 25 mile ride from Kingdom City, I felt it, and I know my brothers did too . . . “Finally! Finally, I am home again. Here, at last, are the people we went for, and tomorrow truly is a new day.”