Every once in a while, you have a perfect day. Not often, but when you do, it is something to behold.
I was lucky enough to have such a day recently. It was at the dedication of a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The monument was placed to recognize the Americans who lost their lives while serving as helicopter pilots and crew members in Vietnam.
Trying to place a memorial in a government facility such as Arlington National Cemetery can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and constantly changing process. This effort was all of these things and then some.
The good news is that the proponents of the monument, the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, sustained the effort with their passion and commitment to ensure that their brothers-in-arms had a place to come home to. Their leadership and members provided the effort, sweat, and tears — and funds — that was needed to make it happen.
And happen it did, on a sunny afternoon in April 2018, within the sacred grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. It is hard for many to truly appreciate such an event unless they were involved in the events commemorated by the memorial. This is true for the Vietnam experience as well as other past, present, and even future life-changing experiences involving armed conflict.
As I looked around on that afternoon, it was apparent that those in attendance had made the journey from near and far, some needing the assistance of a cane, wheelchair, or loved one. All were filled with emotion, expectations, and personal thoughts.
Some were hoping to meet up with long-lost friends, some were seeking a sense of closure. Others looked forward to finally coming home. Many just wanted their service to be acknowledged. No matter what their individual reason was for coming there, the lifelong bond between the veterans could only be understood among themselves.
As I reflect on my own experience in Vietnam and the conversations over the years that I have had with other veterans, I choose not to focus on the horrors we witnessed, the politics of the situation, nor the lifelong baggage we carry. Instead I want to reflect on the subsequent good that comes from such events.
We cannot help but remember the identification of Vietnam as the “helicopter” war. Many consider that war to be the period when the helicopter came into its own as a military tool. I like to think that the thousands of highly experienced pilots and crew members who returned from Vietnam helped the civilian helicopter industry reach its next level of advancement and maturity by applying the abilities of the helicopter realized in war to serve the greater good of society.
We should never forget the many lives saved by our industry or the multitude of goods and services we deliver that enhance the lives of our neighbors every day. Of equal importance are the many skills and experiences gained by those of us who were trained in the military to fly and maintain these aircraft. Those skills helped us transition back to civilian life, giving us the ability to provide for ourselves and our families while serving the needs of our fellow men and women.
Although the dedication of this memorial was focused on those who flew and crewed helicopters in Vietnam, we never want to forget all veterans and active-duty military, men and women alike, of allied nations who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe and able to enjoy the freedoms we have come to expect.
In closing, I would note that one of the most personally gratifying things I have witnessed over these many years is a cultural change that has occurred in our society. It seems that we can now separate the politics of war from the patriotism and sacrifice of those who fight them on our behalf. Rather than the discomfort or outright hostility that many experienced upon their return from Vietnam, veterans now hear a simple acknowledgement of “Thank you for your service.”
To the families, loved ones, and friends of all veterans, thank you for being there for us.
To those veterans who joined me at Arlington National Cemetery, I say to you all: Thank you for your service. Welcome home. Be at peace.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Let me know what you think at [email protected]
As always, fly safe — fly neighborly!