A 73-year-old veteran’s visit to the Vietnam War memorial last week was especially poignant, as he is battling lung cancer he attributes to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
As Clovis resident and Vietnam veteran William Atteberry walked along the main part of the memorial — a V-shaped reflective black wall with the names of every serviceman killed in the war, as well as prisoners of war and those missing in action — he reflected on the long war.
“When you see all those names and you think about it, really, why were we there?” Atteberry said. “So they sent us there and sprayed poison on us.”
Atteberry was one of 66 veterans who completed the three-day Central Valley Honor Flight to the nation’s capital to see their memorials. The Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and Army Air Corps/Air Force were all represented on the trip.
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WWII veterans made up about two-thirds of the flight, which also included those who served in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
One WWII veteran, a 91-year-old woman from Fresno, was unable to continue the trip when she fainted after the honor flight plane departed Fresno on April 25. Her condition led to an emergency landing in Colorado Springs. She was treated on the plane by the volunteer medical staff, given oxygen and an IV and later taken to a Colorado hospital.
Being a WWII veteran, she will have priority on obtaining a seat on the next honor flight in June, said chapter president Al Perry, former director of the Central California Veterans Affairs hospital.
The Central Valley Honor Flight chapter was formed in 2013 to allow veterans the chance to see their memorials without having to go all the way to Bakersfield or San Francisco where the established honor flight hubs were, Perry said. The chapter has taken 645 veterans to Washington and hopes to raise that number to 900 by the end of this year, when the board members decided to retire the organization.
Future trips are planned in June, September and October but only the June trip is fully funded as of now, Perry said. The final two trips are dependent upon fundraising goals being met.
Each trip costs about $175,000, with the airplane charter alone billed around $110,000, Perry said.
Each honor flight is staffed by volunteer medical workers and veteran guardians who ensure that the experience runs as smoothly as possible, said Perry, who has been on all nine trips.
Clovis resident and WWII Army Robert Blake, 92, was also aboard the flight. Blake served from 1942 to 1945 as an Army engineer in the South Pacific and briefly in occupied Japan.
At the World War II memorial, which was dedicated in 2004 and consists of 56 pillars and a pair of arches, Blake recalled how elated he felt when he learned Japan surrendered to the Allied forces.
“I was in the harbor (near Japan),” Blake said. “I was excited, we were finally going home. I left a month after.”
Blake, who most enjoyed seeing the WWII memorial, was especially happy with the honor flight as he had thought he wouldn’t get to visit Washington, D.C., in his lifetime.
“I’m 92 — getting there,” said Blake, whose daughter, Robin, helped set up the trip for him.
Other Clovis residents on the flight were WWII Army Air Corps veteran Wayne Thompson, 92, and Korean War veterans Alfred Ziegler, 86, Army, and Labh Singh, 82, Air Force.
Atteberry was the single Vietnam veteran on Honor Flight No. 9. He had long hoped to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which contains 58,307 names. “I’m glad I got to see it but once is enough,” Atteberry said as he reflected on the Vietnam War.
“I was there to do my job, get it done — whatever I had to do,” said Atteberry, who was drafted in 1967 and served for two years. “When I came home, thinking about it, we lost 58,000 guys over there — why?
“What for — to stop communism, which wasn’t going to happen anyway?”
On several occasions, Atteberry found himself on the frontlines as an infantryman.
“My platoon, generally, we slept in the daytime and did patrols at night, which was pretty scary,” he said. “One time we were up by the DMZ (Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone) — which was the border — and got in a firefight there. Another time, we were up at the Cambodian border, and we were pretty much surrounded by North Vietnamese, and they helicoptered us out of there.
“They asked us out in the field if we wanted to sign up (for another tour of duty),” Atteberry said. “I said, ‘Uhh, I don’t think so’ — not a good place to ask that question.”
Although his memories of his service time aren’t the most positive, Atteberry was grateful and honored to be a part of the trip to Washington, adding that he hopes the flights will continue somehow even after the Central California Honor Flight is retired.
“You can’t say enough about them — the trips that they provide the veterans — it’s just a great, great organization,” Atteberry said. “It was a really great trip.”