Clarence “Gene” Myers, 76, does not talk about his service in Vietnam, not to an interviewer, not to his family, not even to the other friends and fellow veterans with whom he golfs.
“We mostly talk about golf and family,” he says with a laugh.
On October 6, Meyers will be among 22 WWII, Korean and Vietnam War vets traveling to Washington D.C. courtesy of Lake County Honor Flight. The all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization raises funds that make these trips possible. In the nation’s capital, the veterans will be escorted and feted over the course of their three-day visit to see military monuments and memorials that honor all veterans’ service and sacrifices.
Meyers previously visited Washington, D.C. for one day, he recalled. He visited the Arlington National Cemetery and the Washington Monument. On this trip, he said, he looks forward to seeing not only the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but all of the memorials as an expression of his appreciation for his brethren from other wars.
“I’ve seen the traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” he said. “I found my captain’s name on the wall.”
Myers, who lives in Beach Park, Lake County, joined the Marine Corp. in 1959 and served until 1983. He received several commendations, including a Presidential Unit Citation, a Combat Action Ribbon, and the Cross of Gallantry with Palm and Frame.
He was in Vietnam in 1965 and came home in 1968, when anti-war sentiment in America was rising and there were protests across the country. “When we were getting ready to fly back to our homes, we weren’t allowed to wear our uniforms,” he said. “We had to change into civilian clothes.”
“It didn’t really bother me much,” he adds.
The Honor Flight trips are a way to honor and show appreciation for this country’s veterans, said Paula Carballido, president of Lake County Honor Flight, which she founded in 2013. As the former president of the Exchange Club of North Chicago, she had come up with a similar concept after befriending Frank Wortham, a member of the World War II Black Navy Veterans of Great Lakes, which was responsible for erecting a memorial in North Chicago to the first 13 African American Navy officers.
In addition to volunteer work, the two had in common that neither had ever visited Washington, D.C. In 2011, while passing out Thanksgiving dinners at a church, they discussed the recently unveiled Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and thought it would be a good idea to see it. Wortham suggested they ask other vets to join them, and five others signed up; two who served in WWII, two in Vietnam, one from the Gulf War, and one from the Korean War.
Honor Flight is a national organization that focuses its efforts on WWII veterans, of which an estimated 640 die each day. Highland Park resident Rachel Schulman, along with her brother and sister, traveled to Washington, D.C. to join her father, David Reagler, then 88, when he accompanied an Arkansas Honor Flight hub. It would be his last trip before he passed away, Schulman said.
Her father served in the 99th Division, Infantry Company, 394th Regiment, and was a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. Though his 2013 trip coincided with the government shutdown that resulted in some of the monuments having to be scrapped from the itinerary, he did get to visit the World War II memorial.
“It was his last hurrah,” she said. “From the time the plane landed and they were greeted with a band to the time it took off (to return home), the veterans were made to feel honored and special. (Sharing the experience with him) was one of the best days of my life.”
Carballido originally thought the successful inaugural trip would be “a one-time adventure,” she said with a laugh. “But I thought, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’ ” It went from one trip with six vets to three trips annually with up to 23 vets (plus their guardians) at a time. The vets travel for free. The guardians—usually a family member—pay their own way.
Carballido, 34, does not come from a military family. She has lived in North Chicago for five years and immersed herself in community service. “I’ve met a lot of people I fell in love with and one of those groups was the black WWII veterans who had such great stories to share,” she said. “I was the last person to see Frank Wortham before he passed. He told me, ‘Don’t let anybody forget about us.’ That stuck with me. I took that and ran with it.”
The trips are highly emotional, she said. “Many of the Vietnam vets, especially, get something they thought they never would, a sense that there are people like myself who do care about them. I’ve had vets who take medication for depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder share with me that that during the trip they did not feel the need to take their medication and for the first time in years got a good night’s sleep.
“(It’s my hope) that they can let these memories of the Honor Flight experience into their hearts and slowly painful ones can fade away.”
For more information about Lake County Honor Flight, call 847-282-0374, or visit lakecountyhonorflight.org.