Ticket operations at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport came to a halt in the west end of the terminal Saturday as hundreds of people stood packed practically shoulder to shoulder.
But this was no travel nightmare. This was no crippling weather event or bizarre screw-up by an airline that had left would-be travelers grumbling or yelling — though it certainly was loud.
No, sir, these were hundreds of spouses, sons, daughters and grandchildren cheering loudly enough to be heard on the opposite end of the airport’s main terminal as they erupted into chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and waved the Stars and Stripes to welcome about 100 Vietnam veterans returning from a whirlwind trip to Washington.
It was the welcome home these men never got when they returned from their tours of duty back in the 1960s and 1970s during a politically fraught conflict.
“No one wants to be on the losing team,” said Leander resident Jack Bretherick, 68, who served as a sergeant in the Army.
Juan Perez, 69, an Army specialist, fellow Leander resident and Bretherick’s friend since they met about 15 years ago at a local VA, agreed.
“That was not the reception we got when we got back from Vietnam,” Perez said outside the terminal.
Honor Flight Austin is a fairly regular occurrence. This group was the nonprofit’s fifth this year and 45th overall. It was the biggest group ever, and based on the wide smiles and hugs shared by new friends and old, it appeared to be an astounding success.
Over the course of about 36 hours, the veterans took off from Austin, landed in Washington, visited memorials for nearly every major 20th-century U.S. war, and went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and saw the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. But the most emotional stop was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
“It was very powerful,” said Allen Bergeron, the chairman of Honor Flight Austin and a retired Marine. “There were emotional extremes for all of us.”
For 47 years since his deployment in 1969 and 1970, Perez said, he’s had nightmares related to his experiences during the Vietnam War. Finding the name of one of his battle buddies on the wall was an emotional experience.
“I can move forward,” Perez said. “It’s brought back a lot, but it put a lot at ease.”
As the ticket counters for several airlines remained dormant while the parade of veterans walked through the cheering crowd, Austin resident Leif Dove and his 8-year-old daughter, Shelby, cheered, looking for Leif’s father, Life Dove.
Leif, 46, said there were about 10 folks cheering for each veteran, which would put the crowd size near 1,000. He whooped as the veterans walked by, looking in the crowd for his father, who flew reconnaissance missions for the Air Force during the war.
“I’m proud as I can be,” he said.