Accompanying an honored Veteran to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. changed me forever.
We met at Honor Flight Orientation, where honored veterans were matched with the guardians that would escort them to Washington, D.C. to visit the war memorials.
His twinkling eyes and easy smile won me over immediately; I already knew we would have a great time.
“Watch out for her, she’s a journalist,” one of the staff members joked, knowing I had my computer with me to take notes. “Don’t worry,” he replied as he leaned toward me. “I’m a spy, I can handle a journalist!”
And so our journey and friendship began as I was formally introduced to Major Robert Blair, United States Army Commander of Special Forces — Green Beret, who served his country during several tours of Vietnam.
Honor Flight of Central Florida is one of 150 hubs nationwide that take veterans free of charge to Washington, D.C. to visit the war memorials, and honor them as they deserve to be for their service to our country. It was started as a labor of love in 2004 by a few private pilots in Ohio.
Ed Riordan, chairman of the Central Florida Hub, shared with the group at orientation that honoring our vets is long overdue. “Many soldiers were just expected to hang their uniform in the closet when they came back from the service,” he said.
We learned during orientation that we would spend an incredibly long day together, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and ending around 10:30 p.m. We had no idea the impact the trip would have on both of us.
Two weeks later, we met again at the Orlando International Airport for our trip to Washington, DC with Honor Flight of Central Florida. My job was to take care of him, but throughout the day, he was always trying to take care of me.
Bob Blair had only been married three months when he was sent to Vietnam on his first tour in 1962. As part of the Special Forces, he would parachute into dense areas, leading his unit into war zones.
Three times, on three different tours, he was wounded — shot in the head by the enemy. It’s hard to fathom that after getting shot in the head, he would want to return to the war, but he never questioned his duty as a soldier and leader. It was the third bullet in 1967 that changed everything and forced him into a medical retirement.
Blair woke up in a hospital in San Francisco, his head bandaged. Some months later, when he was finally able to be released from the hospital, he wandered around the city and quickly learned that the not everyone believed in fighting for freedom as he did. The Vietnam War split and angered the nation. Many believed and still do, we had no business being there. Others believed we made a difference.
On one of his walks through the city, Blair entered a shop, his head still bandaged. The store clerk inquired as to his injury. When he told her had been shot in Vietnam, she looked at him with disdain, spit on him and declared “Good!”
As hurtful as the incident was, Blair bears no ill will toward her or others who felt the same way. He was doing the job he was asked to do. He knows that not everyone understands. It was the mood of the country at the time.
There is one thing that troubled Blair deeply. On the mission, when he endured his third head trauma, his Sergeant Frank Novello was also shot, and died in that battle. Blair said as the officer in charge of his unit, he felt guilty for the longest time. I made him a promise that we would find his Sergeant’s name on the Vietnam Memorial.
One by one, we visited all the war memorials, including the Women’s Memorial. At Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, the skies opened up. No one minded. We had been supplied with ponchos and quickly donned them. Forty-eight Veterans all gathered together, regardless of the branch of the military they served in, to witness a ceremony that represented so many lives lost and never found. It was an honor to stand behind Major Blair, even in the rain.
Standing and walking are a challenge for Bob Blair. His knees and back hurt, but his greatest difficulty are seizures as a result of the head wounds that affect his balance. Each time he had to stand up, he winced, refusing to take anything to help ease the pain. “I’ve been through worse,” he assured me. Of course he had.
While some veterans are able to walk on their own for much of the trip to the memorials, Bob needed the wheelchair Honor Flight of Central Florida provided and was helped on and off the bus by the paramedics at each stop. He was always last on and last off, yet always had a smile on his face. For a man shot in the head three times during a war, his positive attitude and zest for life humbled me.
Arriving at The Vietnam Memorial we were both a little anxious. I had been there in my late twenties but didn’t really connect with the massive black stone engraved with the names of thousands of soldiers. Bob was afraid we would never find Frank’s name, but I was determined. “We’re going to find Frank Novello,” I said to Bob and he just nodded, wanting to believe me, but not thinking it possible as he looked at the expansive wall before us.
I quickly found one of the rangers in charge of the Vietnam Memorial directory and gave him the information for Sergeant Novello. It turned out that we were literally five feet away from where his name was etched on the wall. Another ranger pulled out a narrow strip of paper and rubbed off the name with charcoal and handed it to Major Blair. He looked at it with awe; still in shock we had found it so easily and clutched it to his chest for a moment. His eyes were moist and I knew he had found some closure.
We toured the rest of the memorials and observed other veterans dealing with their own emotions. It was a day I will never forget.
Riding back on the bus to the airport I looked out the window, noticing the trees that lined the median. I turned to Bob and told him how much I enjoyed traveling and seeing different foliage than what I see in Central Florida. His eyes locked with mine and he lowered his voice. “That’s the difference between you and me,” he said. “You see pretty leaves, I see ambush zones.” I had chills the rest of the ride back!
Back in Orlando, we were met by hundreds of people at the airport waving flags and signs and cheering. It was incredibly emotional to witness Major Blair and the rest of the Veterans being thanked for their service.
How fitting for Honor Flight’s motto: “We can’t all be heroes because some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by.”
When we reached the end of the row of greeters, I found a spot to sit with him before his ride picked him up. “What did this trip mean to you?” I asked him.
He grabbed my hand and whispered; his voice choked up. “This was the homecoming I never had!”
Originally posted on The Huffington Post
Photos: Ron Buteau