In honor of our vets
LE MARS — Two Vietnam veterans from Le Mars were among the 84 veterans were recently a part of the Midwest Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Harlan Herbst and Merlin Schipper participated in the ninth mission of the organization which is based in Sioux Center. This trip was sponsored by the Sioux City Musketeers hockey organization.
Midwest Honor Flight is a non-profit organization in northwest Iowa, South Dakota, northeast Nebraska, and southwest Minnesota dedicated to providing veterans with respect, honor, and closure with an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capital. It is part of the national network that brings veterans to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C.
Herbst served in the Air Force as a member of the 185th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Sioux City, and served in Vietnam from 1968-69.
Schipper served in the Navy aboard the heavy cruiser the USS St. Paul CA73 out of San Diego, California, from 1968-70, and went to Vietnam twice on the ship.
Herbst and Schipper were notified of the trip two months before the flight.
The men and their wives, Vicki Herbst and Kathryn Schipper, attended the banquet at The Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls.
“There were guest speakers and we had time to meet and greet each other as veterans before ‘One Last Day Of Active Duty,’” Schipper said.
The participants were introduced by branch of service, and then individually named. That is how the two men first knew each other was on the flight.
A Day They’ll Never Forget
The day of an honor flight starts early Saturday morning.
“We had orders to be at the curbside by 3:30 a.m., or we would be left behind,” Herbst said. “At the airport, we got a water cannon salute taxiing out.”
Each veteran is assigned a “guardian,” someone who would be with the veteran the entire day.
Herbst’s guardian was his oldest daughter, Jodi Grant, of Sheldon. Schipper’s guardian was Arlis Pettersen of Doon. It was Pettersen’s seventh time as a guardian.
“Just before we loaded up, a little girl came out of nowhere, touched my left hand and said, ‘thank you for your service.’ I looked down at her and said, ‘You’re welcome sweetheart and I love you.’ That was the beginning of an unbelievable day,” Schipper said.
“When we first boarded I had the opportunity to shake the hand of a 102-year-old World War II veteran and I wished him a great day in the Lord,” Schipper related. “On the way to my seat I shook hands with numerous veterans and wished them a great day in the Lord as well. While we were in flight we veterans were able to visit with one another and got to know one another pretty well.”
After landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Schipper said they were greeted in the hallway by banners and people.
“It caught us off balance. A lot of people showed up,” he said.
A Visit to Arlington and More
The first stop was Arlington National Cemetery.
“There Arlis and I went over to the grave of Audie Murphy the most decorated veteran of WWII, having won 24 medals. Not far from his grave was that of Joe Hooper. Hooper a Vietnam veteran, won 37 medals in all and is the all-time veteran of medals won,” Schipper explained. “Joe Hooper never got any publicity during the Vietnam War nor after it was over. Arlis and I then went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched the Changing of the Guard twice and two wreath presentations.
“Arlington National Cemetery was beautiful, somber, quiet, and very peaceful,” Herbst said. “The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider will really get to you.”
Their next stop was the Air Force Memorial, set on a hill overlooking the Pentagon. The memorial features three stainless steel spires evoking an image of jet and space vehicle flight.
“I was really impressed with the Air Force memorial. It is very tastefully done,” Schipper noted.
At the World War II Memorial, Schipper said there was a man dressed as Gen. Patton and a woman dressed as a 1940s canteen lady. He noted it took 60 years before the WWII Memorial was built.
The two talked with the 102-year-old WWII veteran on their flight.
“He was there in a wheelchair and took in everything thing. He was as proud as he could be,” Herbst said.
The group also visited the U.S. Navy Museum and Lone Sailor Statue; the United States Marine Corps Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
Both men were impressed with the Marine Corp Memorial, which is the statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.
In the distance they could see the Washington Memorial and stopped near the reflective pool.
A Somber Moment
The final stop was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
For the Vietnam veterans, the stop at the Wall brought out a range of emotions, many held in check and never shared since they returned home.
“The Vietnam Wall was the saddest part for me,” Herbst said. On the day of the interview, he wore a cap which read “All gave some, 58,479 gave all.”
The Wall was dedicated in 1982. There are still about 1,500 military personnel listed as missing from the Vietnam War.
That compares to some 25,000 still listed as missing from World War II.
Schipper said he had a ranger do rub offs for him from the Wall, of local men he knew. They were: Roger Schwartz U.S.M.C., who finished a year ahead of Schipper at Gehlen Catholic School; Corbin Tindall USANG, who was the commanding officer of the Guard Unit in Le Mars; George Dehner U.S.M.C., who lived in Alton and often scooped the loop with Schipper and his buddies on Friday nights in Le Mars; and Rodney Koerner U.S.A., who finished a year behind Schipper at Le Mars Community High School. Schipper had his picture taken at the Wall, holding Koerner’s picture in his hand.
Throughout the tour, the guardians never left their veteran’s side.
“My guardian was my shadow and a vault with things I said. There were times I wanted a picture with her,” Schipper said. “They were very good at what they did.”
Herbst noted, “Each veteran had an appointed guardian with them from 3:30 a.m. until we got home to Sioux Falls about 9:30 p.m. They were with us wherever we went. The guardians went to training, and swore an oath to not go more than arm-length away from their veteran. I had the best guardian, my oldest daughter. They were well trained,” he said.
A Time to Bond
During the flight home, there was more conversation with fellow veterans as they opened up about their time in Washington, D.C., and also about their time in Vietnam.
Guardians were seated behind their veteran on the airplane, which allowed the veterans to talk and share stories and memories.
“While on the plane and heading home, I had time to reflect on what happened during my day. I kept thinking of the ‘Crown Jewel’ of what I saw, and that was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I spent time in prayer requesting God to watch over our country that we Americans don’t get careless and throw away all that so many have fought for and many have given their lives for,” Schipper said.
“I won’t tell you of things that the Midwest Honor Flight organization surprised us with on the way to D.C., and back again. There were many things done that tripped our memory banks, and all was good. You may ask did anything on the trip make our eyes water? Military veterans don’t cry do they?” he said.
Herbst added, “There are a lot of stories you can tell, but I don’t want to tell them.”
One Final Mail Call
One of the surprises for the veterans on the return flight was “Mail Call,” where they received packets of letters and cards from people they knew or didn’t know, from school age children to the elderly.
“Mail call was the most important thing of your life when you were overseas. We didn’t have cell phones, computers, Skype or satellite phones. Our only contact with MARS Radio (Military Auxiliary Radio System) a one way conversation on a radio,” Herbst said.
He recalled mail call was at 4 o’clock each day, and not all letters were good news.
“Yeah, some guys got ‘Dear John’ letters. That was hard,” he said.
A Grand Welcome Home
At the Sioux Falls airport, the veterans were met by people welcoming them home, and bagpipe players.
“There was a little boy. He looks up and gives you a Hershey bar. If you know your American history, the Hershey bar was the best friend of GIs in Europe, and they flipped that on us,” Schipper said.
From the airport buses, escorted by police and sirens, the veterans made their way to the auditorium at the Sheriden, where over 200 people greeted the group.
Best Days of Their Life
What did the honor flight mean to Herbst?
“It brought back lots of memories, good and bad. We were not welcomed home back then. We were told to just disappear and blend in, don’t make any issues,” he said. “The one final tour with honor, how it went, Mission No. 9, was fabulous.”
A representative from the Musketeers asked Schipper what he thought about it.
“I told him it was one of the best days of my life. The best day of my life was when I married Katie. And this is the second best day of my life. God is good all the time. I feel like I made it back now. For so many years I didn’t even tell Katie,” Schipper said.
“We all locked up about Vietnam,” Herbst said.
Schipper added, “On the honor flight, they knew what they were doing — dealing with the emotions of the veterans.”
Welcome home and thank you for your service.