WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last week, FOX 13 News reported that Utah has the highest percentage of veterans of any state in the nation, save Oregon only.
That is one of the reasons the Utah Honor Flight program is thriving.
The other is the intense patriotism found here.
So when a group of 68 U.S. veterans from Utah and Idaho spent two days in our nation's capital this past week, it was the trip of a lifetime that for many of them was 50+ years in coming.
FOX 13 News anchor Bob Evans and photojournalists Bryan Johnson and Thor Fiedler went with them.
It's hard to put into words the emotions these veterans, and frankly, all of us, experienced on this Honor Flight. From the send-off to the hero's welcome home, it was just incredible.
The Utah Honor Flight program gives veterans from Utah and surrounding states the chance to experience the thanks of a grateful nation, especially for those who did not receive gratitude when they came home.
Most of the veterans on this flight served in Vietnam and returned to an ungrateful nation. It was not uncommon for them to be spat on, have eggs, tomatoes, paint, and even human excrement thrown at them while being called “baby killers” and “murderers.”
The psychological toll that took on them, in addition to the physical and mental scars of battle, created a situation ripe for what the Utah Honor Flights are able to do: Establish closure of a very painful chapter in our nation’s history, and the individual lives of its veterans.
Army veteran Randy Beal saw three tours of duty in Vietnam and was awarded the Purple Heart three times. He qualified for a fourth Purple Heart but didn’t realize it until years later. He tried to re-enlist a fourth time, but the war was winding down, and he was denied.
Beal saw intense fighting all along the way. He recounted how on his first day in Vietnam, a fellow soldier and eventual Medal of Honor recipient Rodney M. Davis, died when he dove onto a live hand grenade to save his fellow soldiers.
“He taught me more that one day about being a leader than all the book learning in the world could have done; that no sacrifice is too great for your men," Beal said.
Ex-marine James Lacagnina, another Utah veteran, had a special assignment on the honor flight. Bob Smith, a fellow ex-marine and friend in Cedar City, who could not come on the honor flight, asked Lacagnina to place Smith’s silver star at the Vietnam war memorial in honor of the fallen.
"Mission completed," Lacagnina said.
98-year-old Army veteran Dean Christensen was the only World War II veteran on this honor flight. He served as a combat engineer who built roads and bridges in the Philippines and was regularly the target of snipers. When asked how it feels to be one of the guardians of freedom, he said, “Oh, it kind of makes your heart blow up a little bit.” Christensen doesn’t consider his generation any greater than those that came after him. He said, “I think that a lot of boys that were there after me; Vietnam, and all these, they deserve it as much as we do.”
The group of Utah veterans visited the U.S. Marine Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Air Force Memorial, the World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War, and Navy memorials, in addition to Fort McHenry in the Baltimore Harbor. It was a poignant and powerful experience for these veterans at each location.
Utah Senator Mike Lee, Utah 4th District Representative Burgess Owens, and 2nd District Representative Chris Stewart greeted them along the way and expressed gratitude for their sacrifices and service. At the Navy Memorial Rep. Stewart, who was an Air Force fighter pilot, had just come from a Navy intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill. He said, “Greeting these veterans and thanking them is without question the most meaningful thing I’ll do all week.”
Before departing from Baltimore/Washington International Airport where they arrived just a day earlier, the veterans visited Fort McHenry in the Baltimore Harbor. Fort McHenry was the target of British Naval bombardment during the War of 1812. It was during the attack on the fort that Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which would eventually become the national anthem.
As a capstone to the experience, the veterans came home to a hero’s welcome at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Hundreds of flag-waving friends and family members greeted them, along with the Utah Patriot Guard riders, a band, balloons, and homemade signs. It was the first time many of them received such a homecoming, and was an experience they will never forget.
The Utah Honor Flight organization is seeking veterans to fill positions on future honor flights. The next flights are scheduled for September and October 2022. There is no cost to the veterans, thanks to the generosity of the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation and other corporate sponsors. To apply, visit utahhonorflight.org.