On July 4, 1970, a young Stuart Cook left New Jersey bound for Vietnam after enlisting in the Navy to serve his country. Unlike so many others, a year later the now 20-year-old returned, a glaring target for the war-protesters who yelled epithets condemning him as he walked through the San Francisco airport in his fatigues. Cook went on to serve as a Fire Chief for the Navy, before retiring in Fallon.
This past week he walked through the Reno airport returning from Washington, D.C. as a member of the first Honor Flight since the start of the pandemic. Not a single protester was in sight. Instead, there was a bagpiper who led them through the airport with onlookers clapping and cheering. Outside by baggage claim, the returning veterans were welcomed back by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Disabled American Veterans, along with relatives and the Comstock Lode Quilters. Each Honor Flight member was given a quilt, made especially for them by the Quilters. “Mine was made by a 15-year-old young lady who during the past year has achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and is a member of both the Boy and Girl Scouts,” said Cook. Each quilt was presented in a matching pillowcase and accompanied by a letter from the person who made it.
The Honor Flight organization provides trips to America’s veterans by flying them to Washington D.C. to visit memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifices. The trips have been on hold since March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. Flights and accommodations are provided free of charge to veterans through the Honor Flight program which pays for the experience through donations made by corporations, other veterans, and a grateful public.
Cook said he was fortunate to be on the first flight in nearly two years that took off from Reno last week with 43 veterans who had served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Cook knew four of the vets on the flight, the others were all strangers, at least for the first few hours of their adventure. Honor Flight’s motto of “Leave as Strangers, Return as Family” was emblazoned on the shirts the men were given to wear for their return flight. One WWII vet on the trip was 100 years old and just recently went parachuting on his birthday. The current record for such an activity is 104 years old, and Cook said his new friend intends to beat that record.
The Honor Flight organization and programs are run primarily by volunteers, many who also served in the military, and the logistics of each trip show the impressive skills instilled in our service people. “As we traveled through each city from Reno to Denver, and Baltimore, people were waiting for your flights, clapping and cheering,” said Cook.
In addition to being the first class of returning Honor Flight vets since COVID, Cook and his new friends were the first to fly on the new Southwest Airlines plane, Freedom One, with the seats for this flight donated by Southwest.
During the four-day trip, the vets visited memorials in Washington D.C. honoring the Navy, Air Force, Marines, the Military Women’s Memorial and Museum, and watched the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While at Arlington, they witnessed the funeral procession for one of the 13 military members most recently killed in Afghanistan. The group paid respects to a U.S. Marine who was killed during Operation Enduring Freedom, the son of one of the Nevada Honor Flight directors.
Cook was fortunate to visit with his sister and brother-in-law who came from Virginia Beach to spend time with him during the trip. Visiting the Vietnam wall was very emotional. “Sadly, I know someone on the wall. I touched his name and my reflection appeared on the black granite wall. This seemed to bring us together once again. Rest in Peace, shipmate.”
During the gathering on the last night in Washington D.C. organizers asked the group what the most important thing was they all looked forward to every day during their service. Most vets yelled out “mail call.” In that spirit, each member of the Honor Flight was given a manila envelope full of letters from people across the country, personally addressed to each man thanking them for their service. Many were written by school children, who asked specific questions and gave their return address, expecting answers.
Cook received a note from a Blue Star mother in Spanish Springs. Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc., is a private nonprofit organization that provides support for mothers who have sons or daughters in active military service. Also in Cook’s envelope were letters from students, teachers, and nurses from New Jersey, Tennessee, Georgia, Minnesota, and Alabama. “I’m planning on writing each and everyone who wrote to me and thank them.
“I recommend to all veterans to sign up for the Honor Flight. You will not be disappointed. It’s indescribable. The whole experience was beyond what I ever could have expected. I never got a welcome home after serving on a riverboat in Vietnam 50 years ago, this brought back memories, both good and bad. Several times during the trip I had to reach for my handkerchief. With so many people, and flags and kind words, my handkerchief came out at the Wall, reading those letters and again at the welcome home celebration.”
While the true purpose of the Honor Flight is to get vets to their memorials, it’s also the return home to a reception of cheering volunteers that has become so meaningful. Cook calls an Honor Flight the trip of a lifetime.
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