WASHINGTON D.C. - The first 21 Never Forgotten Honor Flights mostly hosted World War II and Korean War veterans, but a record 73 Vietnam War veterans made the trip east on the 22nd flight Monday. The flights connect northcentral Wisconsin veterans to their memorials in Washington D.C. For some veterans, it gave them the chance to experience a different feeling about their war and their memorial.
Story By Adam Fox
Jim Klapperich and John Willman were two of the 73 Vietnam War veterans who were able to make the trip. Klapperich is from Wausau and served in the 101st Airborne Division during his time overseas. Willman lives in Stetsonville and served in the Navy in Vietnam.
Both hold different memories and experiences from their time in Vietnam, but they share similar memories of an unappreciated return home.
"We were told to get our uniforms off, I was called a baby burner, and [I was] spit on," Willman said with the Vietnam War Memorial in the distance.
It sadly was a common happening in a divided nation, and it's a situation Klapperich also faced returning from war, but it isn't the only memory that sticks around.
Willman supported ground troops like Klapperich as a gunner on an offshore aircraft carrier. He used powerful guns to help, and Willman says, many times land troops were getting overrun by the enemy when they were radioing in for help.
"They wanted you to immediately fire on them," Willman said. "They didn't care because they were going to die anyway."
Willman said he'd pray he didn't hit the good guys in those situations. It's something that still impacts him today.
"Some people think it's kind of easy just to push the button and you can walk away. You don't walk away, not if you have a head on your shoulders or something in your heart," Willman said.
Klapperich also can't just walk away from his war memories either. The Wausau man saw combat during his time in Vietnam from 1969-70. He also saw a fellow soldier die in battle.
"I'm not sure I came away from the war with any real solid friends, but we were all buddies and we all covered each other's back. And that felt like kind of a failure," Klapperich said.
Those memories flooded back for Klapperich and Willman when they first visited the Vietnam War Memorial years ago. But on Monday, both said the experience felt different.
"When I'm here with the 70 other veterans, it suddenly was just kind of comforting," Klapperich said.
It gave Klapperich enough comfort to etch a name for the first time. He also left behind a 101st Airborne Division patch and a quarter, saying the quarter signified he was with his comrade when he died.
"I've always been close, but it's more comforting now than it's ever been," Klapperich said.
But it wasn't just the presence of other veterans making the experience better. Complete strangers from Texas and other parts of the U.S. thanked vets for their service as they walked along the memorial.
Willman said the day felt like a celebration to remember those who didn't make it home.
"And it's not an us-against-them thing," Willman said. "I had that vibe before, and I don't have that today."
Willman added the feeling made him feel good. Like their new experience at their memorial, things felt comforting coming home.
The group was greeted by hundreds of veterans, family members, strangers and others as they returned home to Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee after a tolling day of travel.
Asked whether this return home was better than his return from Vietnam, Klapperich smiled and said, "It's much better."
This is the first of a four-part series covering the 22nd Never Forgotten Honor Flight. The next story will run Thursday on Newswatch 12 at 6 p.m.