Vietnam veteran honored with flight to nation's capital

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BENNINGTON -- Around the Fourth of July holiday each year, communities across America are reminded of the sacrifice of our nation's military veterans, and offer their thanks in celebrations of the veterans' service and humility.

Rarely, however, do these celebrations involve an all-expenses-included flight to the nation's capital to honor a truly distinguished veteran and community servant.

On May 4, Paul "Joe" Becker, a lifelong Bennington resident, was honored with just such a celebration, as one of 50 veterans selected to travel on an Honor Flight from Albany, New York to Washington, D.C. in honor of his military service.

"It was a pretty neat experience," Becker said in an interview.

Becker served in the 172nd Regiment of the United States Army from 1970 to 1973, and was on active duty in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972. He had not returned to Washington since he served.

"It was a lot different," Becker said. "It's all commercialized now, you know, so that was kind of different 30 or 40 years since I was there until now."

The day began early in the morning, with an opening ceremony at an Albany-area high school. At the ceremony were not only the veterans, but also their "guardians," family and community members who traveled with the honorees. Students at the high school were also present to give the veterans a warm welcome and send-off.

Becker's guardian and sister-in-law, Elizabeth Place, described an emotional scene that began at the opening ceremony and lasted the entire day.

"I come from a military family and just to hear them say to all of these vets, `Thank you for their service' and the looks on their faces, was unbelievable," Place said. "I was thinking to myself, `Dear God, if this is the beginning of the day, what's the rest of the day going to be like?"

She added, "Joe's a hardcore old, you know, he's a Vermonter, come on! I saw him pulling his little hanky and dabbing his eyes, and I thought, `Okay, it's not just me, it's Joe as well.'"

On the way to the airport, the vets were escorted by a parade of fire engines and biker clubs. Upon their arrival, they were greeted by Uncle Sam and members of the National Guard. They were flown on Southwest Airlines to Baltimore, Maryland, where they were greeted on the concourse by a crowd of celebratory onlookers thanking them for their service.

They were then bussed from Baltimore to Washington with a police escort, and visited the memorials for World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Both Becker and Place agreed that the Honor Flight was particularly rewarding for Becker as a Vietnam veteran, due to the cold reception veterans of that controversial war had received upon their return.

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"Vietnam, let's face it, was a war that wasn't talked about, and many of these people had no recognition," Place said. "They weren't acknowledged when they left, and they certainly weren't acknowledged when they came back, and if they were, it was all bad."

"We weren't treated very good when we came back," Becker said.

However, there was certainly no shortage of recognition after this return flight. Upon their arrival that night back in Albany, the veterans were welcomed home by a parade similar to the one that had sent them off. They also received letters from family and community members in gratitude for their service.

According to Place, "Joe sat up and read every single one of the notes that he was given," capping a day-long outpouring of thanks and reflection.

"I would do this again in a heartbeat," Place said.

Though Becker's Honor Flight was meant to honor his military service, his beloved Bennington community has much else for which to honor him in addition, including a 22-year career as an employee of the town's highway department, for which he served a long stint as highway foreman.

Becker treasures his community as much as it treasures him. In fact, when asked what the best part of the Honor Flight was, he replied that it was running into a fellow Benningtonian by chance on the National Mall.

"I knew I knew him, but I didn't know from where," Becker said. "Come to find out, he was a worker from the town of Bennington, and so wasn't I!"

The Honor Flight program is administered by Patriot Flight, Inc., a non-profit, all-volunteer organization based in Albany that regularly flies veterans living in western Vermont and upstate New York to Washington in honor of their service. It is part of the larger National Honor Flight Network, whose other chapters fly their local veterans to the capital in similar flights.

According to its website, the mission of the organization is to "honor America's Veterans for all their sacrifices," and "fly our local veterans to Washington, DC to visit and reflect at their memorials for their service, sacrifices and memories."

"The day trip from Albany, NY to Washington D.C., is provided at no cost to the veteran," it adds. "The Veterans are flown back to Albany, New York, the same day, where they receive a warm welcome home from the community."

Becker said that this is an honor he hopes other veterans will receive.

"There's a lot of veterans out there that should really look into it," Becker said. For him, the experience went to show that "somebody really does care."

More information on the Capitol Region Patriot Flight, including how veterans can be nominated and how to apply to be a guardian, can be found at www.patriotflight.org.


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