On Veterans Day, 11 Nov 97, something incredible happened and as a Vietnam veteran I'm finding it very difficult to describe my feelings as events unfolded in a small town in Washington State located in the foothills of the beautiful Cascade Mountain Range. I will do my best so that all veterans might feel a true "Welcome Home" from this wonderful community.
The day dawned with a blood-red sunrise as Pam and I prepared to make the 45 mile drive to Granite Falls. We knew this was to be a special day as a multi-grade elementary school class and their teacher, Debra Howell, had started a chain of events which would be culminated on this day. This class of young children and their school was about to give the first Veterans Day parade in Granite Falls since 1918. Their purpose was to reunite three Vietnam veterans who had served together as Aeroscouts so many years ago and give a "Welcome Home" parade to all veterans, but especially for Vietnam veterans after all these years. The fact that these young children and their teacher had been planning for this day for months and raised money through bake sales to help offset the expenses had peaked the interest of Vietnam veterans from not only our state, but across the United States and other countries as well. Pam and I knew as we headed north on I-5 from Seattle this was going to be a special event, but we had no idea just how extraordinary it would truly be.
Pam and I reached Granite Falls early that morning as the sun was rising above the foothills. Upon entering this rural town we first noticed the many signs on the local businesses saying "Welcome Veterans." In larger cities like Seattle you seldom, if ever, see such. It is like veterans have been swept aside as the world of high-finance, Boeing, Microsoft and the container ships from the Asian markets have become the driving force in a city where there is too little time to consider the homeless, let alone aging veterans, and where the news media focuses on the latest drive-by shootings and multi-million dollar stadium projects for the Seahawks and Mariners. Any real signs of patriotism have faded from Seattle long ago and is reflected in the small amount of viewers at the annual Memorial Day parade along the waterfront. Even some articles in the local print media have taken what I consider cheap shots at the veterans who participate in such. But this was not to be the case in Granite Falls.
The parade was scheduled to start at 11:00 a.m. Pam and I parked near the high school where there is a large open field for school sports. At 9:45 a.m. coming from the southeast approached a modified Hughes 500 helicopter. It landed yards from where I was standing and I had a sense that something very special was going to occur this day. This particular Hughes 500 was flown and operated by the Snohomish County Sheriff's office and as it turned out, was actually a modified OH-6A which was on loan from the U.S. Army. This was the same type of chopper I had been a crewchief on in Vietnam, and the same type as Granite Falls honored guests, John-Micheal Hendrix, Bob Donnelly and Bill Holmquist from the Banshees had flown and fought from during the war. Just having the opportunity to be near this chopper with lineage to choppers like I had crewed was in itself a great start. The crew was gracious and allowed Pam and I to linger and browse while we waited for our good friends, Mike and Lynn, to arrive in Granite Falls.
When Mike and Lynn arrived, Mike and I put on our Cav Stetsons with pride. Though Mike, the honored guests, and I are from different Air Cav units and even different periods of the war, we all share a common bond as pilots and crew members of air cavalry units. Mike, Blueghost 23, served as a Cobra pilot with (F-Troop, 8th Cav). I had served with the Silver Spurs, (A-Troop, 3/17th). The black Stetsons, however, were a universal trademark of Cav units during the war and would again be worn on this special day honoring our fellow Troopers from the Banshees and John-Micheal Hendrix's wife, Patti.
As we reported earlier Patti was a nurse in Vietnam and she and John fell in love while in-country and wed so many years ago. The book, "To Have And To Hold," written by John tells of their growing love during their tours and of his comrades of the Banshee Scouts. Thus, the idea for the Veterans Day parade - the first for Granite Falls since 1918 - and reuniting John, Bob and Bill was born by the children of Debra Howell's class in Granite Falls.
The parade opened with the Sheriff's OH-6A flying low and slow over the town's parade route with a large American flag flying proudly beneath. An A6 Intruder thrilled both spectators and participants alike with two low passes. Promptly on schedule the parade began its seven block route. The crowd was enthusiastic at the start, but this was only a preview of things to come. As the Honor Guard and VVA Chapter 423 led the parade, the townspeople were cheering and waving American flags much like we have seen in movies depicting VJ-Day parades when the troops came home from WWII. Certainly this could not be for us?
After the first block, the parade route made a left onto main street. Much to Mike's and my surprise the crowd waiting for us was three or four deep lining both sides of the street! It appeared every person in Granite Falls had fallen out to wish us all a "Welcome Home" we and our Korean War veterans had never received. It was inconceivable to me, after all these years, after all the bitterness toward the lack of support both during and after the Vietnam war that this was actually taking place! That "John Q. Citizen" was out in the streets to honor us! Was it really happening?
As Mike, Pam and I marched proudly down main street something came over me. A renewed sense of pride, not only in myself and my fellow Vietnam veterans, but as an American. After all the anger and bitter feelings, the demonstrations, the way many of us were treated with scorn upon arriving back in 'The World' in the airports, the bus terminals and often in the work force, and also many of those who remained in the military after Nam, I was totally taken back by the outpouring of sincere warmth and hospitality from this small community. And here...on Veterans Day...27 years after my return from Vietnam, middle-class America...led by the children of their community were standing and cheering for us! To be honest, it was somewhat embarrassing for me!
I, as so many other Vietnam vets feel, do not consider ourselves as heroes or anything special. The heroes are those on the Memorials around this country and in Washington D.C. and those who still have not returned from past wars. And yet this wonderful community was giving all of us a hero's welcome! Veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm and for those who are serving today. A parade for heroes. The same type of parade our fathers and grandfathers had received when America recognized its veterans for their freedom and peace when they returned from answering the call.
My emotions almost overwhelmed me as the parade progressed down main street and mixed tears of pride, joy, and sorrow as I remembered my fallen comrades. This was not only a parade for us, but was a parade by citizens truly appreciative of the blood sacrifices made for the freedoms so many Americans take for granted each and everyday! And as we progressed along main street, I realized I was not only marching for myself but was representing my comrades of the Silver Spurs, especially my fallen Brothers. John's book had inspired the children to do this for us!
We finished the parade and joined the crowd to cheer those still coming along! I remember thinking as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Ingraham High School Band passed if these young marchers would someday need to answer the call and wondered if that time came if they would get such a 'Welcome Home' and how many might not come home as we watched the POW/MIA flags pass.
The crowd enthusiastically cheered and waved their flags until all had passed. As we milled around talking with other vets - trying to understand what had actually just transpired - the children suddenly appeared with trays of cookies! Time and time again they returned offering more cookies which they and the townspeople had made for all of us! Here we were, standing in the middle of the street, being overwhelmed by these wonderful children! The townspeople had also prepared a meal for all of us which was served at their large community center and Bingo Hall. There, all were treated as honored guests.
The children brought us our plates loaded with food and our choice of beverage and dessert. On the stage was John, Patti and Debra Howell. When Debra Howell started to speak about her class and how the children would not accept "it can't be done" the veterans rose to their feet and gave the children and her a standing ovation. The love and gratitude of this community was felt by all of us who have served our country in time of need and we wanted to give them something back. For these children were our heroes this day!
The children then gathered on stage to sing, "Go the Distance" which was dedicated to their honored guests and was being shared with all veterans this day. More tears as their voices filled the hall and memories turned back to our fallen comrades who never had their "Welcome Home." But somehow, I feel, they were there with us...sharing this very special moment...and realizing their sacrifices were finally being recognized by the citizens of this country. At least this day by the wonderful people of Granite Falls. But I have a feeling that this spirit might well become contagious. That other communities across America are finally recognizing the veterans of this country and restoring our pride in ourselves and our country. I remember thinking to myself, "these kids are worth fighting and dying for! They understand and appreciate the sacrifices so that they can be free to learn, worship, grow and have families of their own in a free land!" And with these children our future is looking much brighter than what is portrayed in the movies or what crosses TV screens each day! These children gave me a renewed sense of hope for America!
After another standing ovation for the children, another teacher, Mr. Kevin Benedict, shared a most-moving song he had written for Patti and John. While in Vietnam Patti was given the unofficial call sign, 'Angel 7' and Mr. Benedict named his song appropriately 'Angel 7,' as it told the story of Patti and John's growing love in a country torn by war, the war itself, and the attitude of the many people at home towards Vietnam vets. One particular stanza which touched me and made my eyes well is the following which I want to share with you.
Mr. Benedict had captured the feelings many of us Vietnam veterans have felt through the years here in the United States. Traditionally we, as veterans, have offered the familiar "Welcome Home" to one another but many of us have never felt we truly are "home" in our own country. Something did fundamentally change during our tours in hell. Perhaps it was our country itself. Perhaps it is us. Or most likely, a combination of both. Regardless many vets have felt caught between Vietnam and home. Far too many have taken their own lives or remain homeless on the streets of the cities caught in this void.
As a result many of us have inwardly constructed protective barriers that only a few select are allowed to penetrate. But this day, at Granite Falls, my carefully constructed protective barrier failed me and the impact of the love and sincerity this community and their children were freely giving struck home. And something perhaps magical happened. Some of the great weight was lifted. The weight of survivor's guilt...the burden of anger and bitterness towards America...the years of frustration that America could and never would understand our feelings...never would separate the war from the warrior...all seemed to be gently lifted from our weary shoulders. Patti, John and Debra had done an excellent job of teaching the difficult lessons of love and war. And these children....God love them....have grasped the burden we have been carrying and helped lift that great weight and make us more whole this blessed day in a small town in Washington State.
In a fitting closure Bataan death-march survivor, Bryce Lilly, sang Taps. More tears of reflection, but also tears of joy as you wanted this experience to continue forever!
I am forever indebted to the children, Debra Howell, Mr. Benedict and the entire community of Granite Falls. For I don't know if you fully realize what you all have achieved. You have helped me to further heal and regain my pride. You have rekindled a hope for America. And as Bob Donnelly summed up in a caption which appeared in the Seattle P-I:
Editor, The Northwest Veterans Newsletter
Caption Read: "Vietnam veteran Bob Donnelly gets a hug from Bruce Crabtree, 10, at the reviewing stand at the end of yesterday's Veterans Day parade in Granite Falls. Moments earlier Donnelly summed up the parade: 'I might as well die now - things will never get better.' The event, planned by the community's children to give Vietnam vets the homecoming they never received, drew 3,000 to downtown streets." -- page 1, 12 Nov 97.
The story that was unfolding over the last several months by the children in Granite Falls has been extremely touching......in fact, almost too good to be true....especially after all these years. I prayed it would be perfect--a perfect day, a perfect “Welcome Home” for my Brother and Sister Vietnam Veterans.
We headed north very early. The sunrise was spectacular: pinks, oranges, reds illuminating brilliantly over the Cascade Mountains, and both Mount Rainier and Mount Baker were breathtaking in all their magnificence. As we drove north on I-5, Roger and I hardly spoke at all, both of us deep in thought reflecting upon what Veterans Day means personally to each of us, of lost comrades and friends, and of the special significance of this Veterans Day by the people of Granite Falls. We couldn’t imagine what awaited us in Granite Falls.....could this particular morning hold special magic?
As we turned east crossing over the bridge in Everett, the entire valley looked like mystical Brigadoon as the thick fog nestled low among the trees and church spires. The more north we drove the cooler the air felt and as we rounded a bend in the road, a coating of frost glistened and sparkled on the trees and grassy meadows. Yes, the magic was beginning.....
“Welcome To Granite Falls” the sign read, and “Welcome Veterans!” and “Thank You Veterans!” read other signs which were everywhere. Old Glory was flying from just about every business, flag pole, street sign. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Roger and I looked at each other, and our eyes began to get a little misty. The magic was gaining momentum......
We stopped to ask directions and was greeted warmly and with smiles, “Are you Veterans?” “Yes.” “Welcome!! Feel free to park at the high school. It’s close to everything.” They were correct...the community of Granite Falls has 1,560 residents and we were only a short block or two from the center of town. Once parked at the high school, we took a walk around the immediate area while waiting for our good friends, Mike and Lynn, to arrive from Graham, Washington. We also heard that some fellow Canadian Vietnam Veterans were planning to attend today's parade--how perfect! I hope they come and get the "welcome home" they, too, have long been denied. The sun was climbing and the chill in the air was warming. The sky was such a deep blue and the breeze a gentle whisper.....the weather couldn’t have been more perfect! There was definitely magic happening in Granite Falls.....
Today will be Roger’s and Mike’s first parade.....an experience that I know will bring much emotion, remembrance, reflection, and memories for them. Even though my emotions and memories could never come anywhere as close to those that Roger and Mike will feel this day, I know a little of what will happen to them....my first parade was Veterans Day 1993 in D.C. for the Women’s Memorial Dedication. And looking back on that particular Veterans Day, I get a huge lump in my throat, because it is hard for me to find the words to describe all that I was feeling at that time....still do....suffice it to say, those were four of the worst days of my life and yet four of the best days of my life. Today would be my second parade, but the first in my home state. The parade in D.C. was a “Welcome Home” from Brother Veterans to Sister Veterans, but today’s parade is from the hearts of these special children of Granite Falls. I knew in my heart that THIS parade was going to be something special and unequaled for Vietnam Veterans. It must be magic.....
Mike and Lynn arrived and it was now time to make this Veterans Day a little extra special for Mike and Roger......a few weeks earlier, in honor of Veterans Day, I presented Roger with his Cav Stetson, complete with his Silver Spurs and his 3/17th crossed sabers. And now for Mike, we surprised him with his Warrant Officer silver and black intertwined braiding that he lost while in Vietnam. Now his Cav Stetson was complete once again. (Lynn and I conspired to pull off this surprise.) Today was becoming even more perfect with our husbands now wearing their Cav Stetsons with honor and pride! The magic was growing......
The parade was about to begin and Lynn and I took our positions a block down the parade route. We wanted to be sure to capture our husbands’ first parade, their long-overdue “Welcome Home” on film! An A6 Intruder made two impressive passes over the crowd and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s OH-6A flew overhead along the parade route with a large American flag suspended beneath. Lynn and I looked at each other and we knew that today was going to be a very unique experience for our beloved husbands!! As the parade proceeded past us, Roger and Mike were in their own “unit of 2” behind the Color Guard. The “Air Cav” was represented and being honored and welcomed home! Shortly after they passed by, Roger motioned for me to join him. I was deeply honored to march beside my husband, as well as my other Brother and Sister Vietnam Veterans. Lynn would remain on the sidelines to capture the rest of the parade on film....to forever preserve the magic that had fallen on Granite Falls and the Vietnam Veterans.....
It was when we made a left turn onto Main Street that the sudden enormity of the crowd truly overwhelmed me....and as I looked over at Roger and Mike, I could see the emotional impact it was having on them. What touched me so much were the genuine expressions of cheering, the “thank-you’s”, the “Welcome Home!”, the “we love you’s” that came from the children, the adults....the waving of flags...the applause.....the sincerity that was expressed in their faces, their eyes....that is, the faces I could see through my own tears--tears of both joy and sorrow....joy that the Vietnam Veterans were finally getting their parade, especially THIS parade, their “Welcome Home” by the warm community of Granite Falls--and sorrow for the thousands of Vietnam Veterans gone from us never having known they are heroes in the eyes and hearts of these children and this community. I have no doubt the magic generated by these children in Granite Falls would somehow reach the heavens and touch our fallen Brothers and Sisters. Yes, these children had created pure magic.....
After reaching the end of the parade route, we all began to spill out to the sidelines--mingling with other Veterans, hugging, wiping a tear or two, all the while continuing to cheer on and welcome home the Veterans that followed us. I had also brought with me a special message from an Australian Vietnam Veteran to be shared with the Veterans and the children today. Colin Benson (from Mackay, Queensland, Australia) had sent Roger and I t-shirts, which I was wearing, and his message read “G’DAY from an Aussie Vet”. His message was enthusiastically received by both the Vietnam Veterans and the children from Debra Howell’s class! The day was touched by many endearing gestures, but one was very touching: seeing the children ask the Vietnam Veterans to autograph the special t-shirts they were wearing just for them. The Vietnam Veterans were awed by this particular gesture.....the interaction between Veteran and child was something to behold! Hmmm, perhaps it was more than magic at work.....
The luncheon was like none I’ve ever experienced: all the tables were set with flag placemats, red-white-blue decorations, children cheerfully waiting on each Veteran, and then they began to sing...... “Go the Distance” ...... I was kneeling down between several seated Vietnam Veterans to capture these young voices on my taperecorder, and as the words were sung, tears welled up in my eyes. But I wasn’t alone, as I looked immediately around me, there wasn’t a dry eye among my Brothers, and one in particular was having great difficulty...I reached across and held his hand....then another Brother behind me placed his hand on my shoulder...and then another....It truly can’t get any better than that! Yes, the children’s magic was around us this day.....
The final song was written and sung by Kevin Benedict in special honor of John and Patti Hendrix. It was sung to perfection, his voice clear and somewhat reminiscent of a young John Denver. The words he wrote were very powerful...and the last stanza held special meaning for me:
Co-Editor, “The Northwest Veterans Newsletter”
We have been previously contacted by Banshee 42, S.C. Jones and have linked to his tribute, "Eagle Bird Down" ....the story of a Banshee Scout pilot who insured his rescue after being shot down in Vietnam.
The Banshee's (B Troop, 2/17th) also have their own Home Page which provides unit background information!
Postscript: Sadly, John Hendrix passed away on 16 Nov 2006
© The Northwest Veterans Newsletter