Honor Flight

Four Calloway County residents traveled to Washington D.C. with Honor Flight Bluegrass. They are seen here the morning after the trip at their hotel in Louisville with other veterans from the flight. The local veterans included Eddie Cook (seated in the wheelchair), Gary Yuill (far left), Phil Rodeghiero (third from left) and James Clemons (fourth from left).

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the pandemic hit, Honor Flight Bluegrass had to pause operations for two full years, meaning that quite a few older veterans missed their chance to visit multiple memorials in the nation’s capital free of charge. Four Vietnam War veterans in Calloway County, however, were lucky enough to get that chance earlier this month.

The Honor Flight Network is a group of chapters that identify eligible veterans to visit their respective war memorials in Washington, D.C. and provide them with the opportunity to receive accolades for their service. Jeff Thoke, chair of the Louisville-based Honor Flight Bluegrass, said the last flight the organization took before the pandemic was in October 2019. There were no flights taken in 2020, and they were finally cleared for the first flight back in October 2021. The organization prioritizes older veterans, and Thoke said the organization knows of at least 35 veterans who died while they were still on the waiting list.

“We know of that many that were waiting to go on a flight who died during those two years,” Thoke said. “That’s a combination of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. So that’s really sad, and some of the Vietnam veterans have been waiting four or five years to go because we’ve been flying World War II and Korean War veterans as the first priority.”

The Calloway County residents who went on the June 2 trip were James Clemons, 81, Eddie Cook, 71, Phil Rodoghiero, 74, and Gary Yuill, 76.

Rodoghiero, who lived in Dolton, Illinois at the time of his enlistment and served in the Army from 1968-71, said he signed up for the Honor Flight at Murray’s American Legion Hall several years ago. Although he was on the waiting list for quite a while, during that time, he said he would get Christmas cards from children in schools and churches. 

Rodoghiero said he had been to Washington several times in the past, so he had seen the memorial wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial years ago, but several impressive memorials have been built since, including the Korean Veterans Memorial (which opened in 1995), the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997) and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (2011). The World War II Memorial opened in 2004, and although he had never gotten to see it before, Phil said he and his wife, Donna, had been among the first to donate to its construction when it was first announced.

With so many sites to visit, the veterans who experience the Honor Flights are always in for a whirlwind of a day. That’s especially true of western Kentucky residents having to drive to Louisville International Airport early in the morning.

“It was about 3 in the morning that I got up, and we got back to the hotel (in Louisville) at 9 at night, so it was a long day,” Rodoghiero said. “They put us up at nice hotel and we had a suite.”

Clemons is an Army veteran originally from Evansville, Indiana and is currently commander for Murray’s American Legion Post 73/Billy Lane Lauffer Post. He spent 20 years in the service after first joining the National Guard in 1963 and served two tours of duty in Vietnam (in 1966-67 and 1968-69).

Clemons said he was on the Honor Flight waiting list for four years. He said the Korean War Veterans Memorial was probably the site he appreciated most, and while he got close to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, but he couldn’t bring himself to approach it.

“I’ve been to several of the miniature traveling walls, and it pretty much tore me up,” Clemons said. “I didn’t want to go down there and start bawling. I’m 81 years old, and I just didn’t want to break down in front all the guys. I went close enough to it to see it, but I didn’t get close enough to touch it and think about it too hard. I lost several friends down there.”

While thinking about friends who were no longer living was tough during the trip, Clemons said he also received the news just last week that a close friend from the war, Jerry Workman of Goshen, Indiana, had died.

Yuill, who is originally from Mulberry, Indiana, went to Vietnam and served in the Air Force from 1963 to 1987. He said he had been on the waiting list for about a year, although he had been to Washington before because one of his sons graduated from Georgetown University. Although he enjoyed looking at the monuments the first time around, it meant even more seeing them with his “brothers.” 

Yuill’s daughter, Monique Holmes, is also an Air Force veteran and acted as his guardian during the trip since veterans can invite a relative to be a guardian or be assigned one. With both of them having served, he said being on the trip with her felt even more meaningful.

Eddie Cook, a Murray native, said he was on the waiting list for about five years after having signed up at the American Legion with Clemens. Cook was in the Marine Corps from 1969 to ‘71 and was actually the youngest Marine in Vietnam at the time he arrived. He said he had never been to Washington D.C. before, so he was excited to go. 

Like Clemons, he had also seen the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall when it came to Paducah, but seeing the real thing was a unique experience. He said he was in Vietnam for four months before he was hit by mortar, breaking his arm before catching malaria and eventually being sent back to the States. He said he was in the Quế Sơn Valley, where more Marines died than anywhere else during the war.

“I tell you, man, you sit there and look at it ,and I know how close I came to being on that wall,” Cook said. “And what really gets to you is when you see all the little trinkets and dog tags and ribbons and medals people have left there.”

Traveling to Arlington National Cemetery also had a profound effect on him, Cook said.

“You start looking at all these immaculate, white crosses in a row, you start thinking, ‘None of these guys got up that morning fixing to die,’” Cook said. “They had no idea they were going to get killed. That got to me.”

During the trip, there is always a mail call in which the veterans receive letters and cards from relatives, friends and children from the community, among others. Cook said he thought that was a nice touch since mail call was usually a favorite part of any service member’s day when any word from home was in short supply. Rodoghiero said he really enjoyed that part as well, and in addition to letters and cards, he received a painted rock from one child thanking him for his service.

“I got a bunch of cards that the kids in school and everybody sent,” Clemons said. “Man, I’ll tell you what, I got a bag of mail I’ve got to answer. I’m going to feel bad if I don’t.”

With the Vietnam War being so unpopular at the time, anti-war protests became very emotionally charged in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were obvious targets of rage, and so were military leaders, but many activists took their anger out on the soldiers themselves. Almost any Vietnam vet can recall the anguish they felt at being blamed for policies they had no part in deciding and the scorn that was heaped upon them when they returned from the war. 

The veterans who went on the latest Honor Flight are certainly no exception. Clemons said the response he received when he came back home from Vietnam was so poor that he decided to move away from Indiana. He said he’ll still visit family members there sometimes but never spends the night.

“It’s just too much of a bad feeling,” he said. “I got spit on, kicked, everything there in Indiana. That was the worst place that I ever got pushed around.”

Yuill recalled coming through San Fransisco when one of his fellow soldiers was repeatedly told to go to military standby when all he wanted to do was buy a first-class ticket to fly home. During their layover, they went to kill time at a bar, and Yuill said everyone there stared at them with contempt. Then the wait staff ignored them and didn’t serve them. Arriving from Washington back in Louisville couldn’t have been more of a contrast, he said.

“It was unreal; people were hugging on you and women were coming up and giving you a big kiss on the cheek and people were shaking your hands,” Yuill said. “I had tears in my eyes. That’s the way it should be … and that’s the way it should have been. … No one should be treated the way I was treated when I came back home.”

“There were 1,000 or 1,500 people,” Clemons said. “Man, I’ve never seen so many people – kids, old and young alike. It was just unbelievable. … They wanted to shake hands and pat me on the back and everything. And that was far from what I got when I first came home.”

“They never told us about the homecoming parade they were throwing,” Cook said. “They had some people there that morning hooping and hollering, but no big deal. That’s about what I expected (when we got back), but there were a couple thousand people there just screaming and hollering. (Several) ex-Marines came and shook my hand, and then the bugle guys and bagpipes and drum corps started playing super loud. Then they hit the Marine Corps song and started playing that and I started boo-hooing! Everybody was. It was really, really touching.

“I never expected a parade when I came back from Vietnam; I just expected to be treated a little better.”

Thoke said Honor Flight Bluegrass is always looking for eligible veterans, and anyone who has one in their family or knows one may call 1-888-988-1941 to get the application process started. He said the chapter is looking especially in rural parts of the state because most of the veterans in larger cities have already heard of the organization, but many outside those areas have not. The last flight scheduled for 2022 is on Sept. 7.