Korean War veterans get overdue welcome home
November 16, 2011
WASHINGTON (Nov. 16, 2011) -- Sixty years after their country forgot them, the Tennessee Valley's Korean War veterans finally received the fanfare and recognition they deserve.
"It didn't bother me then, but it does now when you see people come home," Albert Bertin, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War, said of the lack of recognition Korean War veterans received upon their return home to the U.S. "(After) World War II everyone was welcome. When the ship comes back into port they're all welcomed. We got nothing."
Valor Flight One -- The Flight of the Not Forgotten -- took to the air Saturday to change that, transporting the Tennessee Valley's Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C. to view the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Fanfare erupted at dawn at Huntsville International Airport as the veterans began their day bright and early with well-wishes from family, friends and community and military leaders, before taking to the air for the short flight to Washington. Upon their arrival in the nation's capital, service members from across the military branches, as well as community well-wishers, thanked each and every veteran for their service with a smile, handshake and words of gratitude and encouragement. Music, cheers and applause filled Reagan National Airport as the veterans began their day in D.C.
"The reception veterans got here today was just amazing. It was overwhelming for me, I know it had to be for them," said Sue Ann Sandifer, of Hazel Green, who served as a guardian for the trip. "It's hard to even put into words because it's been such a good experience."
For Donald Canaday his return from the Korean War was uneventful, a lonely car ride back to his hometown, where some people didn't even know he had gone to war. Saturday he finally received the thanks and welcome worthy of a hero.
"I've never seen such a recognition," Canaday said. "Never."
The fanfare continued as the 114 veterans and their guardians, both from North Alabama and the D.C. area, boarded buses to bagpipes and salutes, and set off for the very reason Valor Flight exists -- to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial. With tears still in their eyes from the outpouring of love and support from the nation at both airports, a deep sense of gratitude and excitement washed over the veterans' faces as they arrived at the memorial, each taking turns getting their pictures taken with the 19 stainless steel statues that embody the sacrifices and immense challenges the veterans faced at war.
"The Korean Memorial -- just the expression the statues they had on their face, they just looked half scared to death," Canaday, who spent 22 months on a ship during the war, said of the highlight of his day. "I had a lot of friends who were over there, and yet I always had a good meal three times a day, a bed to sleep in and a shower. They were in the mud, snow and ice."
Dedicated on July 27, 1995, the 42nd anniversary of the armistice that ended the war, the memorial is a circle intersected by a triangle. Nineteen stainless steel statues depict a squad on patrol, while strips of granite and scrubby juniper branches remind visitors of the rough Korean terrain. A black granite wall is etched with actual photos of Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. "Freedom Is Not Free" is written on the wall to reflect the emotions behind the war.
"These war memorials are so important," said Kathleen Bashian, certified master guide, who led a bus tour for the veterans. "With people of all ages, it's a teachable moment when they go to the World War II memorial and to the Korean and to the Vietnam memorial. Sometimes people never want to focus on one moment of history but you bring them to your memorial and they'll start asking the questions, finding the meaning to it, so they're very, very important."
After ample time to take in their memorial, as well as the Lincoln Memorial, the tour of D.C.'s finest tributes to freedom and patriotism continued at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, where the group re-energized themselves with lunch before watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
A stop at the Marine Corps War Memorial, commonly referred to as the Iwo Jima memorial followed. The day concluded with an evening driving tour of the city, which included views of the U.S. Capitol, White House, Vietnam Memorial and Washington Monument.
While the Korean Memorial was the basis for the trip, for the veterans the journey was more than just a sightseeing extravaganza and photo opportunity, but rather, an immersion in the nation's tributes to those who serve their country selflessly, with their sacrifices and acts of heroism taking center stage.
"One statement that really shows the value and the tremendous dedication in terms of what you did over there is that Korean Americans will come to us, come to the veterans and say, if it wasn't because of America, I wouldn't be here today," Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration committee member commander John O'Brien told the veterans during a recognition ceremony at Iwo Jima. "That really is you guys. You guys were the ones that went over there to protect their freedom and defend them against tyranny. Don't forget that. The best thing that you can do to honor these veterans is to continue that struggle and to keep that fight going, to defend freedom."
Inspired by Honor Flight, a nationwide effort to fly WWII veterans to see their memorial in D.C., Valor Flight, a non-profit based in Madison, aims to grant the same experience to North Alabama's Korean War veterans, at no cost to them. Fund-raising is under way to fly a second mission this spring. Some $100,000 is needed to get the flight off the ground.
For more information, visit www.valorflight.com.