In 1969, a 23-year-old Vietnam War veteran, newly discharged from duty in the battlefields of southeast Asia, boarded a plane that would take him to a place he had longed to see for four interminable years - home.
He had walked through the airport, taken his seat on the plane and placed himself among a wealth of strangers. A discomforting thing happened, though. Even though he was still in uniform, not a single individual spoke to him except for imparting minor shreds of information about instructions for flight and other aspects of the trip.
How could it be possible that, after spending a day among those whom he served, he felt as if he’d become invisible - and worst of all, even shunned.
For those who experienced the tumultuous 1960s, it’s easy to recall the deep fissures that opened in American society concerning the country’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Protests raged across the nation, with people of all ages expressing their defiance of participation in a war that seemed to needlessly place young men and women in harm’s way. Protestors believed deeply in the principles that drove their demonstrations. However, forgotten among these crowds was that, by protesting ideas, they inadvertently became flagrantly disrespectful to the soldiers and volunteers who had done their duty.
The scars of war are not always borne on a person’s exterior. Sometimes the damage is done to a soldier’s soul, and the young veteran who returned home that day continued to feel the sting of his experience during the subsequent 50 years.
Though Donald (Bubby) Watson of Eolia had not expected it to do so, his trip on Honor Flight #58 provided solace for a hurt he had seldom spoken of.
Watson’s wife Kathleen and daughter Patricia arranged far in advance for him to enjoy a trip with an Honor Flight group in May 2019. Even then, Watson was reluctant to participate, but he accepted the offer and joined about 110 others (among them both Vietnam and Korean War veterans) on buses that toured memorial sites of Washington, DC, in order to pay homage to not only the bus riders, but also to all persons who had sacrificed their hearts and lives for other Americans.
Sponsored by the Central Missouri Honor Flight program, the 20-hour trip was exceptionally well organized, even to the point of providing police escorts to cut through traffic as the veterans’ buses toured about a dozen sites paying tribute to American involvement in diverse wars.
Watson found the Vietnam War Memorial statue to be the most moving with its portrayal of soldiers not unlike the fellows he served with during his time overseas. The World War II Memorial impressed him tremendously, and Watson will hold the visit in his memory as one of his favorites from the day.
But the part of the event that most deeply touched the veterans on that day was the emotionally gratifying reception they enjoyed among all they encountered.
Watson recalls being introduced to several groups of students from across the country who had scheduled their own visits specifically to meet the Honor Flight group. Children asked to shake Watson’s hand, as they did with the other Honor Flight group members. At various times during the day, individuals stopped members in the group and thanked them for sacrifices made on behalf of succeeding generations.
Following the return flight to St. Louis, the group ventured onto various buses for the final leg of the journey back to Columbia.
But the honors had not ended in DC.
At various times, people grouped on highway overpasses, holding signs and waving to welcome the veterans home from their Honor Flight trip. Nearly 500 motorcyclists escorted the buses as they neared their destination. Scores of cars with their headlights turned toward the homecoming buses were seen in church parking lots and along side roadways.
Even though the cost of the trip for each busload of travelers topped the $100,000 mark, there were no fees charged to the former soldiers for travel, meals, and other essentials at any time during the trip.
“It was overwhelming,” remarked Watson. “Everyone really took care of us veterans.”
When the trip ended, Watson continued to be energized by the excitement of the event and was “hyped up” enough that he didn’t even feel tired after a day steeped in activity.
Best of all, Watson brought home a souvenir he never thought he’d have - the healing of a hurt done to a younger version of himself decades ago on a very different kind of flight.
“That doesn’t stick in my craw anymore,” he stated as a heartfelt smile widened across his face.