Vietnam veterans from North Dakota and Minnesota make an emotional visit to their wall
Some have waited years for an Honor Flight to take their generation to Washington, D.C. But even now, they say it's not about them.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Russ Stabler of Hunter, North Dakota, sits on a park bench just outside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. He's apprehensive to go in.
"I've been one other time and it was tough. It's always tough to think about those days," he says, contemplating the men and women lost to the war. "But I need to go inside. It's not about me. It's about them."
Stabler, who has been a staple of the Fargo-Moorhead area veterans community for the past 30 years — serving in honor guards and in service organizations — played an integral part in helping previous Honor Flights take off, including the very first WDAY WWII Honor Flights in 2007.
"I was right there cheering them on and welcoming them home. I loved it! They deserved it," Stabler said.
But now, it seems the Vietnam veterans deserve it, too. This is the first time in the 15-year history of North Dakota/Western Minnesota Honor Flights that Vietnam veterans outnumber other veterans on the flights, including Korean and WWII veterans.
Kenneth Eide traveled from Grafton, North Dakota, to spend time with the handful of veterans from that community. He also wanted to stop at the Vietnam wall to do a pencil etching of his buddy Donald Barnes.
"He was just a little guy, you know, short in stature, but powerful. I don't know how many men he had under him. He was on assignment. They came under attack and he got them all to safety," Eide said with tears in his eyes.
Eide said he's surprised that he felt so emotional just seeing the pencil etching of his friend's name.
"But, yeah, it means a lot. It really does," he said.
He got help finding exactly where to find Barnes' name on the 70 panels that make up the wall. The panels are organized according to the date of death, with the tallest panels in the center of the memorial representing 1967 to 1969, the deadliest years of the war. Park rangers and Honor Flight staff are on hand to assist with the etchings.
Three friends from Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, found the name of a buddy from their hometown, Francis Benoit.
"He went in right before me," Gary Weiss said. "It took some time, but it's good to see him."
"Did you know this wall has a heart?" Stabler adds to the conversation.
Stabler then tells the story of how, when the wall was being built 40 years ago, the father of a man killed in Vietnam asked the construction crew if he could put his son's Purple Heart in the ground as the granite walls were being built around them. They did.
"I just like that story," Stabler said. "It shows, in a way, there's a heart beating here. These guys are still here."
He said his buddies lost at war probably would have wished they could enjoy the trip he's been on for the last couple of days, but they can't.
"I got to come home, they didn't. I think a lot of us feel that way," Stabler said. "So really for us to walk around here it hurts. But it really is for them."