VERMILLION — History serves up a sad reminder of how veterans of the Vietnam War were treated when they returned home from the overseas conflict.
There were no large assemblies to welcome their return; they in fact, were often told to not wear their uniforms to be anonymous among other travelers and escape possible abuse from American citizens whose protest of the conflict ironically played a part in bringing the United States’ role in the war to an end.
Half a century later, 120 local Vietnam veterans, including four vets from Vermillion, got the recognition they deserved. The veterans participated in the Midwest Honor Flight, a whirlwind journey to the nation’s capital on Oct. 12 that included stops at Arlington National Cemetery and several of the war memorials in Washington, D.C.
“Three other guys from Vermillion and I got to go,” said Ray Hofman, who was stationed in Illinois during the Vietnam era where he served as a military policeman. “We had a great time.”
The other local veterans who participated are Jim Richardson, Jack Voigt and Jerry Bailey, all of Vermillion.
Shortly after their plane returned home and touched down at Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls, the 120 Vietnam-era veterans were bused to the Sioux Falls Arena and greeted by a crowd of over 1,000 family, friends and well-wishers.
“I had a little bit of information that the trip would end at the arena … they had it down to us receiving dog tags, a Hershey bar and receiving honorable discharge papers when were done,” he said. “Everything moved like clockwork. It was like you were right back in the military again. I can’t say enough good stuff about it. It was incredible.
“There were at least 1,000 people to greet us (at the arena) because there were 120 Vietnam-era vets plus 40 helpers and paramedics,” Hofman said. “I’m sure that everyone had at least three or four people there. The whole east side of the arena was almost full. It was amazing.”
The veterans came from northwest Iowa, southwest Minnesota and South Dakota. In a journey held with military-like precision, the veterans gathered in the lobby of a Sioux Falls motel at 3:30 a.m. Oct. 12 to be transported to the Sioux Falls airport.
“We were shuttled to the airport and we all were given a lanyard and a name badge and we walked up to the TSA,” he said. “They were directed through a door to an area where they served a small breakfast before boarding their plane.
“We boarded the plane right around 5 a.m. Some of the guys are getting up in years — one of my partners was 85, and some of them were in wheelchairs,” Hofman said. “We got all loaded up on the plane and the flight crew had red, white and blue gear on and plane had flags up and down the seats and banners throughout the inside.”
During the direct flight to Washington, songs from the 1960s era were echoed through the plane’s inter
“Some of the vets got up and told stories about their service,” he said. “It was truly an honor flight. There were guys who poured their hearts out and even members of the flight crew talked about their husbands and their loved ones and their fathers in the military.”
Their plane would eventually touch down at Reagan National Airport. “When we got off the plane, we were welcomed by a big ‘welcome home’ banner and the airport was filled with Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, members of service organizations, the American Legion, the VFW — all shaking our hands,” Hofman said.
The veterans boarded buses and traveled through Washington, DC without any traffic hassles thanks to a police escort that led the way.
Their journey included stops at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to witness the Changing of the Guard located in Arlington National Cemetery and visits to the Iwo Jima (Marine) and the Air Force Memorials.
He said the veterans were able to gather in perfect spot while at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to witness the Changing of the Guard.
“They also did a wreath placing … and there were three guards out there at that time. It was amazing,” Hofman said.
After enjoying a boxed lunch at the Air Force Memorial, the veterans traveled through downtown DC with a stop at the Navy Memorial before completing their trip with stops at the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.
Hofman had a photo of himself taken at the World War II Memorial holding a photo of his late father-in-law, who passed away in 1995. He was a World War II veteran who was wounded while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
The group eventually made its way to the Vietnam War Memorial. Among the names of the tens of thousands of Vietnam War casualties carved in the wall is James Lee Fuchs of Vermillion. He was a private first class in the United States Marine Corps and died Feb. 6, 1968.
“I did a tracing of his name,” Hofman said, “and I also walked over to the Korean War Memorial.”
Hofman’s service as a military policeman (MP) in the United States Army was during the tail-end of the Vietnam War era, from 1974 to 1976. He was stationed at a nuclear weapons base in Illinois.
The veterans were eventually shuttled back to their plane at Reagan National Airport to begin their journey back to Sioux Falls. During their flight, he said, “mail call” was loudly announced.
Hofman received several letters from students from across the country, including kids attending Jolley Elementary School in Vermillion and East High School of Sioux Falls. Each veteran received a similar mail package that included thank you notes and hand-drawn pictures.
The Midwest Honor Flight experience, he said, far exceeded his expectations.
Hofman, who for nearly 30 years helped organize trips with the St. Agnes youth group in Vermillion, knows the work and planning involved with a much smaller organization.
“The perfection and all of the things that was going to take place (during the Honor Flight) did take place and it just like clockwork,” he said. “It was above and beyond my expectations.”