MORRISON – Healing was on Ray Torres’ mind when he put together the keynote speech for Sunday’s Whiteside County Honor Flight Picnic at Morrison-Rockwood State Park.
This type of healing was more mental than physical.
The Vietnam Marine was only a few months into duty when he was seriously injured during the Siege of Khe Sanh. He made it back home, but several of those he knew were not as fortunate.
Given the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. during an Honor Flight on April 21, 2016, he carried with him a list of names: corpsmen from corps school, field medical school, Marines from his Echo Company, and a high school classmate.
“For many years I had a difficult time dealing with the fact that 58,320 names of men and women whose names were on the wall through their acts of heroism, courage and valor, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Torres said. “Our country could not give these mostly young men and women the honor and respect that they should have truly deserved.”
Torres began his speech by explaining how the phrase “welcome home” was a rare sound when Vietnam veterans returned from overseas. Nearly 50 years later, he and his fellow solders were given a much more positive and gratifying reaction when they came to Washington to visit several monuments, including the Wall.
“We were met by school children and boy scouts who lined the terminal the entire way,” he said. “It was so unexpected and very emotional for me.
“It helped me come to terms with my healing process, and long started my healing process.”
About 85 people, including Honor Flight veterans, their family members, and Whiteside County Honor Flight volunteers attended the picnic. The free meal was open to anyone who had taken the Honor Flight, and their families. Tables were full of pulled pork, meatballs, casseroles, fruits and other dishes.
One of the oldest veterans in attendance, Victor Busse, 93, of Clarksville, Iowa, makes it a point to bring his homemade chocolate turtle candies to each picnic.
“He makes the best turtles anywhere,” his granddaughter Keri Larson said.
Busse, who served in the Navy in the South Pacific from 1944 to 1947, went on a flight 9 years ago.
“It was great to visit the monuments and everything. I truly enjoyed it,” Busse said. “Meeting everyone here has been great.”
Memories of service and recent memories of past Honor Flights were among the chatter during the 2-hour picnic.
John Helms, 77, of Milledgeville, a Vietnam veteran, attended the picnic for the first time. It reminded him of how he dealt with the emotional struggle of making it through.
“The respect that we received from people who were giving tours, when they saw us coming … God,” he said. “My sponsor had been there before, and she had forewarned me what was going to happen, but she forgot to tell me about DC.
"I cried like a baby. I just was not ready for that. I really held back the tears, but I got through it. I never felt that way before in my life.”
Roger Hinrichs, 75, of Milledgeville recalled a story about how he received a name rubbing – a scribbling done in pencil to make the name of a etched name on the Wall stand out on paper - from a 12-year-old girl nearby. Hinrichs, who served in the Army from 1966 to 1967 made it back, but his friend, Larry Mackey of Polo, was killed in Quand Ngai, South Vietnam in 1970.
“She went and got the paper, and they did it perfect,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people in this world.”
Honor Flight is a national program that sends veterans, combat or otherwise, to Washington, D.C., on a 1-day trip to tour war memorials and other attractions, each accompanied by a volunteer guardian to assist them on the trip. The program started as a way to honor World War II veterans and has grown in recent years to include veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Bob VanDeVelde, 94, of Sterling helped establish Honor Flight opportunities to veterans in Whiteside County. He was a tech sergeant in the Army Air Forces from 1943-45. About $400,000 in donations have been made toward its flights, which began in 2009, and close to 200 veterans from the county have taken part in the trips, he said.
William Simane, 82, of Sterling went on a flight in 2012. He served in Korea as a seaman fire patrol technician from 1954 to 1957.
“This is the best thing they can do for the veterans,” he said.
How to take an honor flight
Honor Flight is a national nonprofit network with 131 hubs in 45 states, including Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, which serves veterans within a 75-mile radius.
The program sends World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans on a 1-day, jam-packed trip to D.C., to explore all the war memorials and other attractions, while giving them the star treatment. All veterans are not only welcome, but deserving – even those who did not see combat.
The flights, all funded by donations, are free to all veterans, who are accompanied by volunteer guardians who pay their own way and help the veterans throughout the day.
Whiteside County Honor Flight launched in summer 2009, and the Lee County Honor Flight, chapter a year later.
The local chapters are affiliates of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, and the flights leave from and return to Quad City International Airport in Moline.
Applications are available from the two local chapters, and veterans can sign up at any time. Priority is given to World War II and Korean War veterans, and to those who are terminally ill.
By the time the plane, bus, fuel and other fees are taken into account, each flight costs about $80,000.
Tax-deductible corporate or individual donations can be made to:
• Lee County Committee of the Quad City Honor Flight, P.O. Box 986, Dixon, IL 61021.
• Whiteside County Honor Flight, P.O. Box 400, Sterling, IL 61081.
To volunteer or for more information on the local Honor Flight efforts, contact Tom Bushman of the Lee County chapter at 815-440-3054, or Gary Farral, firstname.lastname@example.org or Bob Van de Velde, 815-499-6100, for the Whiteside County chapter.
For applications or more information, go to HonorFlightQC.org or to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities Facebook page or call 563-388-3592.