ROGERSVILLE — Visiting the Vietnam War Memorial was an emotional experience for Hawkins County veteran Thomas Horne, but not as emotional as the reception he and other vets received when they arrived at the airport.
Horne was among approximately 100 veterans, mostly from the Vietnam War, who participated in an Honor Flight on Oct. 6 from Asheville, N.C., to Washington, D.C., to visit various memorials.
“I had seen the wall once before, but that was right after it was erected, and the statues weren’t up yet,” Horne told the Times News during an Oct. 25 interview. “It was good to see it again. I knew several names on the wall. I was in combat over there and had some pretty good friends on the wall. It’s a pretty emotional thing.”
He added, “Actually the most emotional thing was when we arrived at the airports, and all the people were lined up in the terminal cheering us and shaking hands. I’ve never seen so many old men crying in one place. A lot of tears were being shed.”
Horne, who has lived in the Stanley Valley community most of his life, noted that Vietnam veterans came home expecting to be greeted with cheers like their predecessors in WWII and the Korean War.
“Instead, you get called ‘baby killer,’ get spit on,” he said. “I believe the receptions we got at Reagan International Airport when we arrived in D.C. and when we got back to the Asheville airport probably did it for me as much as anything. It was overwhelming. We didn’t get that kind of welcome when we came from the war in the ’60s and ’70s. The airport receptions helped make up for that.”
Horne’s daughter Stephanie and her husband live in Henderson County, N.C., and she encouraged him to apply for the Honor Flight program there, with her serving as his “guardian.”
For the past several years, Honor Flight has been providing free trips to Washington, D.C., mainly for WWII and Korean War vets to visit monuments and war memorials. Recently the program has been focusing on Vietnam veterans as well.
Horne’s experience got off to a slow start, however, when the group’s Oct. 6 flight was fogged in for 3½ hours.
They didn’t arrive in the nation’s capital until noon, which meant they had to miss the first stop on their itinerary: the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Instead, their first stop was at the Lincoln Memorial, where they were greeted by three-star Gen. Jim Pasquarette, who spoke about the three wars represented by the Honor Flight veterans in attendance — WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
From there, they went to the Vietnam War Memorial.
Horne served in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam during 1965-66.
“I went over when President Johnson started the big buildup over there in 1965,” he said. “We went over as a division on a ship, so I personally knew a whole lot of the guys I was with. It wasn’t like I came in as a replacement and didn’t know anybody. We trained together a couple of months at Fort Riley, and I got to know quite a few of the guys.”
He added, “That’s what made it hurt even worse, because you got to know a lot of them personally, and then when they get killed or wounded, it kind of hurt worse than it would have if you didn’t know them at all.”
At one time his platoon was down to a little less than half strength, and he had a few close calls himself, but Horne was very lucky and didn’t get wounded.
A soldier in the foxhole right next to him was shot through the back of the neck. He said if the bullet had been 2 feet to the left it would have hit him right between the eyes.
Like many veterans, his experience caused postwar nightmares, which were still occurring when Horne visited the Vietnam Memorial for the first time in the early 1980s.
“Actually my first time actually at the wall itself was more emotional for me than it was the second time,” he said. “This was back in the early 1980s. (The memorial) brings back memories, and for some I guess it would bring back worse memories than others. I just remember it being very emotional. I tended to well up and shed a few tears. The second time I was at the wall it was still emotional, but it didn’t affect me quite as much as it did the first time.”
After visiting the Vietnam Memorial, Horne’s Honor Flight group visited the Korean War and WWII memorials before heading back to the airport.
Although the nightmares have subsided, Horne admits that to this day there are still many questions in his mind about what was accomplished in Vietnam versus the cost of the war, both in human life and in the suffering experienced by the survivors.
But he found the Honor Flight to be therapeutic.
“It just helps you to shut the door on a lot of things,” he said. “Seeing the wall, seeing the memorials — it just helps you clear your mind a little bit of things that might have been questioning in the past.”