WASHINGTON – Arizona veteran James Byram Price stood at attention and stared straight ahead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the names of fallen soldiers etched onto the black marble of the wall, his reflection staring back.
He stood rigid, silent, before the wall. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, but there was no mistaking the emotion when he spoke, his voice wavering.
“I was one of the lucky ones to be able to come home, but we’re always still there with our brothers,” Price, a Vietnam veteran, said Wednesday.
Price was one of 30 Arizona veterans in Washington this week as part of another Arizona Honor Flight, a charity that flies World War II, Vietnam and Korean War veterans to visit their respective memorials around the capital.
For some, it was their first time visiting the city and the memorials; others had visited in years past. But at some point during the day, many were brought to tears as they stared at one of the memorials honoring their service. For many of the Vietnam vets in particular, it felt like the gratitude they did not get when they came home from the war.
“I was just doing what I was told was the right thing to do,” Price said. “And now I’m getting that welcome and thank you and it brings me to tears.”
The day was not all tears. As they waited to visit the Vietnam memorial with their “guardians” – family members and volunteers – the veterans joked like kids on a field trip, singing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and saying how they blasted it and other songs to scare the enemy.
After a few minutes, a woman in full camouflage approached and told the veterans she was there to honor them, a gesture that had many of the honorees once more wiping tears from their eyes, while others bowed their heads. Each veteran received a commemorative gold pin that their guardians helped pin to hats or lanyards, or shirts right above the heart.
At the Wall, the veterans paid their respects, with some searching for the names of lost comrades. Some shared stories of their lost friends, while others got charcoal rubbings of colleagues’ names on a piece of paper to bring home. Others could only stand and stare.
Across the National Mall, Jim Clark, one of two Korean War veterans on this trip, found himself emotionally exhausted from all the stops during the day, especially the final one at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Tears welled in his eyes, even as he said, “I don’t have any tears left.”
This was not Clark’s first visit to the memorial. He came years ago with his children, acting then as more of a tour guide, and unable to experience the memorial on a deeper level.
“I don’t think I had the emotions that I’m having this time,” Clark said. “But here I’m just like a big sponge and I’m so touched and filled with joy.”
The oldest member of the group, World War II veteran Ted Kuntz from Cottonwood, said he was overwhelmed, eyes glistening slightly.
While the rest of the group took pictures pointing at the Washington Monument, Ted’s son, Steve Kuntz, pushed him around in his wheelchair as he wordlessly pointed out battles and locations from the Pacific theater.
Honor flights have been flying nationally since 2005, with local “hubs” scattered across the country. Costs for the flights – or missions, as the organizers call them – are funded through donations to the hubs, with veterans making the trip at no cost to themselves.
The Arizona hub was organized in 2008 and the first flight took off for Washington in 2009. This week’s flight was the 93rd from the Arizona hub, which claims to have sent more than 2,000 veterans to D.C.
This latest group flew in Tuesday and spent a whirlwind Wednesday hitting all the memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, before flying home Thursday. Throughout the day Wednesday, the veterans reminisced about old friends with new ones. Even as they enjoyed the moment, memories were never far away.
That was true for Price, standing over 6 feet tall in a black cowboy hat and black jacket with a patch reading “Indian” – nickname he earned as the only Native American in his platoon.
“You never forget,” Price said. “It’s always there in the back of your mind one way or another.”