A Very Moving Tribute to Our Vietnam Veterans
Those who visited Terminal 4 and were in the vicinity of the D Checkpoint during the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 12, would have heard patriotic tunes and seen a bunch of red, white and blue balloon arches and a large gathering of people mostly in red t-shirts. But what they also would have seen if they stayed to observe was an emotional event that really touched the hearts of attendees.
Scores of people held signs that said things like “I Love You Dad,” “Welcome Home Son,” “Thank You for Your Sacrifice,” “We Are Proud of Our Vietnam Vets,” and “Thank you Uncle Frank from the Vincent’s and Our Country USA,” among others. Others held balloons that said “Welcome Home.”
But all of the approximately 250-300 people anxiously awaited the arrival of Vietnam veterans from Arizona who participated in the annual Operation Freedom Bird Event. This event, which partners Southwest Airlines with the Arizona-based Operation Freedom Bird organization, gives 50 Vietnam veterans the chance to travel to Washington D.C. to pay tribute and acknowledge their feelings about the war and serving their country. Thursday’s afternoon celebration was to welcome them back from Washington D.C., and ultimately, a chance for friends and families to give the homecoming to the vets that they never had after the War.
“This is a great event,” said Verna Bragg, who describes herself as an “Army Brat,” and whose father, Clipper A. Carter served in the 25th Infantry at Ft. Huachuca. “There wasn’t anything done (for these veterans) when they returned, and this is wonderful that we are celebrating them now.”
As the Southwest Airlines flight arrived at the gate, the Phoenix Fire Department welcomed the plane with a water arch. And, as the Vietnam Veterans walked down the concourse and got closer to the D Checkpoint, anticipation built from family and friends waiting to welcome them back and hear how the trip went. People applauded, whistled, and waved little flags to show their support and patriotism. As the veterans entered the reserved area, they walked under a sword arch tribute from the local Knights of Columbus. The emotions of the veterans ranged from smiling and waving to those who you could see had tears in their eyes and were overcome with feelings of how important this is to them and their country. Southwest Airlines employees welcomed them and thanked them before the Phoenix area-based Honor Guard presented colors. Then, renowned trumpeter, Jesse McGuire, played a powerful National Anthem and Taps. As the song hit the high notes, people burst out in applause and cheer. Chaplain Al Young of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Chaplaincy said a few words before Webb Crockett from Southwest’s Board of Directors and Pat Lynch, the Founder and President of Operation Freedom Bird spoke about the program and thanked family and friends for their support.
“I’m really impressed by this event and didn’t realize how big it would be,” said James Johnson Jr., who had served in the armed forces himself as a Marine in Desert Storm. Johnson Jr. stood waiting for the arrival home of his father, James Johnson who served in the 82nd Airborne during the Vietnam War.
Each year, Operation Freedom Bird selects veterans in Arizona to take part in this event. Over the course of the year, veterans speak with counselors to confront the feelings they had from being involved in the Vietnam War. The culmination of the process is the four-day trip to D.C. While in D.C., they visit the Vietnam War Memorial several times both during the day and at night. They also tour Arlington Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Participants are also involved in attending a Veteran’s Day Ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial and a Memorial for the Marine Corps Exchange.
Many veterans in the past had visited D.C., but were so emotional that they couldn’t go and visit the Vietnam Memorial. This program has been able to help many of these veterans. Quincy Aulisio, a 1996 Operation Freedom Bird participant, said that for him getting to the Wall was “a turning point in recovery and that it is an experience you have to have been there to understand.”
Tattoo, a 2004 Operation Freedom Bird participant, echoed Aulisio’s sentiments. “It’s a great program that benefits a lot of people.”
As the program came to an end, participants and their family and friends had the opportunity to visit with one another and celebrate the sacrifice these veterans have made to our country. Thank you again to all of the veterans who have and who are serving our nation.
Above and to the right, James Johnson Jr., Lorriune Robinson, Verna Bragg, and Arnold Bragg, await the arrival of the Vietnam Veterans.