A 90-year-old mother leaned on a silver pillar inside Fresno Yosemite International Airport on Wednesday evening, anticipation growing for an important arrival.
Among the 68 veterans returning on the 19th Central Valley Honor Flight trip from Washington, D.C., was Carolyn Walker’s son.
She remains so proud of him.
John Walker, 68, served as a crew chief during the Vietnam War in 1970 and ‘71.
This time, Carolyn Walker had plenty of company to help welcome these veterans home with a long tunnel of family and friends waiting.
Decades after the Vietnam war – an unpopular one to a contingent of anti-war Americans at the time – the men who landed Wednesday were getting a different kind of welcome than what they returned home to in the 1970s.
This one was filled with hugs and honor, not resentment.
“I can’t even tell you how wonderful it was to be able to hug him,” Carolyn Walker said. “They were so mistreated when they came home, and to have them now, watch all these people who are thanking their veterans, it’s really amazing.”
Honor Flights take veterans to see war memorials. The group that went this week was a first locally, made up of only Vietnam veterans.
When the first men came within view of the massive assembly, that was the cue for the supporters to cheer and wave miniature American flags to surprise the veterans.
John Walker couldn’t believe it.
“There’s a lot of emotion that is hidden over the last 40 or 50 years that this helps bring out,” he said.
He found his mother and sister Jean Hardy, 64, along the way and stepped out of the procession to hug them.
The family, whose patriarch was a World War II prisoner of war, traveled from Visalia for the homecoming.
When Walker arrived from Vietnam at Travis Air Force Base decades ago, the welcome wasn’t extravagant like Wednesday’s.
Carolyn Walker said she didn’t even know when her son had arrived or how he had returned.
“I had no way of welcoming him home til later,” she said.
She worried for him when he was away.
“I prayed all the time. I still do,” she added. “It’s sad, what we saw before.”
John Walker said he and his fellow veterans were treated “like royalty” during the trip. A special touch to the trip was a batch of letters he got from students, which he began to read on his way back to Fresno.
All those years when he’d felt disappointed about the manner in which some Americans treated him for being a Vietnam veteran were no match to the patriotism he witnessed in the three days away, he said.
“I read about 30 letters, just cried the whole time.”
This, Walker said, is the only homecoming that matters.