Veterans return to crowded celebration after trip to Vietnam

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MENASHA, Wis. (AP) — A.J. McCaskey wasn’t interested in going back to Vietnam.

He had seen it once already, as a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division in 1968 and 1969. He didn’t really want to see it again.

But, he said, when a friend told him he should sign up for a trip for veterans headed back to Vietnam, he eventually gave in. A month later, he got a call that he’d been chosen.

After two weeks in Vietnam, McCaskey, a 72-year-old from Wautoma, and 51 other veterans from Wisconsin returned home to a crowded celebration at Menasha High School. The crowd was quiet as it waited for the veterans to enter the gym. But when they did, the roar was deafening.

“I knew they were going to have a welcome back reception, but this was stunning,” McCaskey said to the Appleton Post-Crescent.

Old Glory Honor Flight started accepting applications from veterans last summer when the two-week trip to Vietnam was still being planned. More than 500 applied. A group of 52 veterans went on the trip, which began Feb. 24.

The trip is believed to be the first time an Honor Flight from the U.S. has gone to Vietnam. In 2012, Old Glory Honor Flight also brought a group of veterans back to Pearl Harbor.

The trip back to Vietnam offered the veterans a chance to reflect on the time they had spent there and try to heal. McCaskey spent much of his first time in Vietnam fighting in the Mekong Delta, where he took part in search-and-destroy missions.

“We visited (the Mekong Delta) on this trip, so it was a real emotional time,” he said. “The whole trip was an emotional roller coaster.”

The trip also gave him a chance to see how Vietnam has recovered from the conflict.

“It warms my heart to see it peaceful and prospering, and the kids enjoying life and not worrying about an artillery shell coming into their backyard,” he said.

Drew MacDonald, Old Glory Honor Flight president, told the crowd gathered to celebrate the veterans’ return that he was overwhelmed by the community’s support.

“This is awesome,” he said. “That’s the only word I can come up with.”

MacDonald, who accompanied the veterans on the trip to Vietnam, said those who went on the trip found different ways to support each other, too.

“When you became overcome with an emotion, the rest of you rallied around,” he said. “Each of you supported each other.”

Janine Sijan, whose brother Lance Sijan, of Milwaukee, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1975 for his service in Vietnam, praised the returning veterans for going back to a place that evoked such painful memories.

“You had to have courage to do that,” she said. “You had to have the love of the people around you to do that.”

Honor Flights across the country pay to send veterans to Washington D.C. on a free one-day trip see monuments and meet other veterans. Old Glory Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization, serves veterans in northeast Wisconsin.

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Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com