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After years of helping others take Honor Flights, local Vietnam vets head to DC

Honor Flight President Jane Matejcek says she’s thrilled to be flying again. This is just the second flight to take off since the COVID-19 pandemic grounded flights in 2020.

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Veteran Dwight Dinkel of Grafton, North Dakota, goofs for the camera while waiting to visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., with medical volunteer Lindsay Kujawa, left, and Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN President Jane Matejcek on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum
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GRAND FORKS — The early fall air was almost biting this morning — 38 degrees — as more than 100 veterans came to the airport to get on the flight many have waited years to take.

But no matter. Their navy blue star-spangled windbreakers helped take the chill off almost as much as the warm breakfast sandwiches and equally warm hugs given away inside the airport.

After more than 15 years of Honor Flights in North Dakota, it was their turn to get a day in the sun. Frosty September air be darned.

“I’ve waited three years for this!” says Gloria Nerby, the only female veteran on the flight. “I’m so anxious to see everything in the city.”

“The city” is Washington, D.C., where the Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN is taking 112 veterans to see the sites of our nation’s capital, including the memorials built in their honor.

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Veterans from North Dakota and Minnesota were greeted warmly by "Joe" the volunteer at Baltimore Washington International Airport on Sunday, Sept 11, 2022.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

The project, which started in 2007 as the WDAY WWII Honor Flight, took World War II veterans and later Korean veterans on the all-expense paid trip to Washington. The flight changed its name in 2017 and a dedicated group of volunteers double-downed its commitment to continue flying veterans, eventually, Vietnam veterans, to D.C.

Communities all over North Dakota and Minnesota have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the trips happen.

For the first time in 15 overall trips, the number of veterans from the Vietnam era outweighs veterans from other conflicts. (About 85 Vietnam veterans compared to 24 from the Korean era).

“I’m so excited,” said Bill Lykken of Grafton, North Dakota. “I’ve been watching these flights on TV for years. I’m so honored now to go.”

And the volunteer committee wanted to make sure they felt honored starting with a water cannon salute from firetrucks at take-off from Grand Forks.

Once the group arrived in the Baltimore-D.C. area, they hit the ground running with stops at Ft. McHenry (the home of "The Star-Spangled Banner") and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

Honor Flight President Jane Matejcek says she’s thrilled to be flying again for a couple of reasons. This is just the second flight to take off since the COVID-19 pandemic grounded flights in 2020. And more importantly, she says it’s time to thank those veterans who, since 2007, have fought so hard to make sure others get honored.

“They have been instrumental. I think most of the veterans' service clubs have been run by Vietnam veterans, so they’re the ones really keeping these communities alive. We’re grateful now that it’s their turn,” Matejcek said.

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One of those veterans is Russ Stabler, who is active in several veterans organizations in their area, including the Honor Guard.

Through that work, Stabler has been able to visit D.C. But past visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial left him feeling “sick and hurt.”

“I have friends there,” he said. “It kind of gives you a pang in the heart.”

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Living history volunteer Sonny Lozano and veteran Charles Sansburn swap hats at Fort McHenry in Maryland on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

So he says he’ll be “a little apprehensive” for the final day of the trip when the group visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But Matejcek says knowing the unique circumstances faced by the Vietnam veterans, the group is more ready than ever to deal with the tears that might come with their visit to the wall.

According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.

For the first time, Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN has added two mental health providers to their seven-person medical team.

“We might not need them. But I think if anyone needs coaxing, or mental health counseling, or even to say, ‘It’s OK if you don’t see the wall,’ we want to make sure the veterans know that,” Matejcek said.

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Stabler says he will make it to the wall, no matter how tough it is.

“These are my brothers and sisters on that wall,” he said. “And they deserve our support and so do their families. This isn’t about me. It’s about them.”

In the meantime, the group will visit other attractions, including the National Archives, Arlington National Cemetery and they'll also just have the chance to be together.

"I'm just so happy to be with other Vietnam vets. Nobody I went overseas with or anything, but it doesn't matter," Lykken said. "We're all brothers, you know?"

Visit Inforum.com tomorrow for Day 2 of the Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN in Washington, D.C.

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Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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