Forty-eight years had passed for at least one Vietnam veteran. But old memories were still too painful to allow him to approach the wall Saturday.
Instead, Lewis Casey walked across the street to the Lincoln Memorial.
“It had some bad memories for me,” Casey said Sunday upon his return to San Diego. He said an in-law, who was a Marine, died in the war.
The first group of Vietnam Veterans on Honor Flight San Diego started new friendships, rekindled old ones, brought back new memories and Sunday received a large, enthusiastic homecoming at San Diego International Airport.
Many hundreds of well-wishers, including Scouts, fellow veterans, active duty military, family and friends — many in red, white and blouse clothes — gathered in Terminal 2 to cheer for them.
The Sweethearts of Swing singers entertained the crowd before the arrival.
Casey said he was “very glad” he went on the trip, only his second airplane flight since serving in Vietnam. After comparing stories, he realized one of his companions on the flight used to be his neighbor.
Seeing many military brothers that he hadn’t been in touch with was the highlight of the three-day trip, Casey said.
After taking more than 1,500 World War II and Korean War veterans on tour of Washington monuments, Honor Flight San Diego opened its passenger lists this time to Vietnam Veterans.
Eighty-five former members of Navy HA(L)-3 Seawolves were given the first honors.
The Seawolves were formed in support of Naval Special Warfare and Mobile Riverine Forces and were the only rapid reaction armed helicopter squadron ever commissioned in the U.S. Navy. They are the most decorated Navy squadron of the Vietnam War and in all of naval aviation history.
“It was fantastic,” said Seawolf Gary Ely. “These people (Honor Flight San Diego) do a fantastic job. It’s almost beyond many of my adjectives to tell you what it was all about.”
For Ely, the Vietnam Memorial was “significant because we all knew who we had on the wall. You get a lump in your throat anytime you get over there. But it was great.”
Cheering crowds as he boarded and debarked the flights meant the most to him, Ely said.
“No doubt about it,” he said.
For veteran Craig Foley, the airport homecoming was the most precious part, bringing him to tears.
Giving the Vietnam veterans an enthusiastic welcoming — because they didn’t receive one in the 1960s and 1970s — was an important goal for Honor Flight San Diego, representatives said.
Veteran Bob Hicks of Peoria, Arizona, also had an emotional connection at the Vietnam Wall.
“Well, once I found the three or four people that I knew had died over there, I felt good,” Hick said. “It was altogether different.”
The trip has inspired Casey to stay in touch with his fellow Seawolves.
“I’m gonna start making more of the squadron reunions,” Casey said. “That way I can get closer to a lot of my brothers.”
Honor Flight San Diego’s next trip — Nov. 4-6, called an award flight — is open to Vietnam veterans who earned a Purple Heart or a higher personal award for their military actions.
To apply, visit this page.
Around 60,000 Vietnam veterans live in San Diego County, Honor Flight says.
To donate money to send veterans on their free flights, visit this page.