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This time, a welcome home to remember PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 18:25

For Vietnam veterans like Jeff Waite of Grafton, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight offers a far warmer reception than they received when returning from war

    When Jeff Waite of Grafton returned from a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight last month, he got a homecoming like he never imagined.
    “There was a pipe and drum corps,” Waite said. “There were about 100 military people in uniform saluting up. They had thousands of people there. They had a brass band, people with flags. Women were hugging us, men were shaking our hands. They were 20 deep on either side.
    “It was exciting. I couldn’t shake enough hands. It was great.”
    It was a far cry from the welcome the Marine sergeant received when he returned home from Vietnam in 1970. While Waite wasn’t hassled by protesters, he didn’t exactly receive a hearty welcome, either.
GUY LG    “We went over as individuals for the most part, and we came back as individuals,” he said. “There were no formal send-offs or welcome homes. The people who came back from Vietnam, they just got on with their lives.”
    Waite, one of Ozaukee County’s first Vietnam veterans to take a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, was on the Sept. 16 flight — another first for the organization, which for the first time since its inception in 2008 took a planeload of Vietnam War veterans.
    Waite, 69, said he applied for the Honor Flight as soon as it opened up for Vietnam vets.
    “I don’t like to travel,” he said. “I’m a homebody. There’s so much to see in Washington, and with this I could see a lot of it in a day. Being a Marine, I wanted to see the Marine Corps Memorial.”
    But he saw so much more, including the Air Force, Pentagon, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, as well as the Vietnam, Korean War and World War II memorials and the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
    At Arlington, he noted, if the crowd grew too noisy, the guard on duty would step outside his path and make a loud announcement that the crowd needed to quiet down and be respectful, then start his  march again.
    There was a protest at the Lincoln Memorial when the veterans arrived, but Waite said it took nothing away from the memorial itself, “It was absolutely stunning,” he said. “It was like a cathedral.”
    The World War II Memorial was “amazing,” Waite said, noting there was an older man dressed in his Eisenhower jacket waiting to greet them.
    “It was like a huge star-spangled gala event,” he said. “The Vietnam and Korean memorials were more emotional.”
    Of the Korean War Memorial, which features statues of a group of soldiers on patrol, he said, “That was a spooky one.”
    At the Vietnam Memorial, Waite said, the group was quiet. He found the names of two of his high school friends on the wall and made impressions of them — one had died in Vietnam in 1967, the other in 1968.
    Waite, who grew up in Milwaukee, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966, just after high school, and served until February 1971.
    “I knew I was going to end up in Vietnam, but I knew I’d be well-trained,” he said. “I was willing to take the risks involved.”
    He went to basic training and infantry training, then became a structural mechanic for jets and helicopters, but spent most of his time working on helicopters.
    He was stationed in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, assigned to HMM362, aka the Ugly Angels. The squadron was the first Marine helicopter squadron sent to Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, he noted.
    He was stationed in Phu Bai Combat base, a large base where all the branches of the military were stationed. Although he was a helicopter mechanic, primarily working on UH-34 helicopters also known as “The Dog,”  Waite also took his turn as a helicopter machine gunner.
    It was scary, he admitted, “but you get used to it. Most of the people I was with, you just got used to stuff and did your job.”
    He was shot at numerous times, he said, “But I never was shot.”
    Waite earned an air medal for flying 20 combat missions, and his combat air crew wings for serving in three fire fights.
    There were people who flew combat missions virtually daily, he recounted, noting one soldier received 42 of the air medals.
    Waite was sent home a few days earlier than expected, on emergency leave after his father suffered a stroke. He was honorably discharged and, as he said, “got on with life,” earning a degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College in sheet metal fabricating and welding, marrying his middle school sweetheart Jennifer  in 1971 and settling in Grafton to raise their family.
    He worked as a manufacturing engineer for decades, working for 26 years at Super Steel in Milwaukee. He retired at age 62 from his last job at Trak Manufacturing in Port Washington.
    Waite was accompanied on his Honor Flight by his son Bill, who celebrated his birthday on the flight.
    It was nice having the guardians, as well as the Honor Flight corps of volunteers.
    “You spend all your time visiting and seeing stuff,” Waite said. “You don’t have to do anything else. You don’t have to worry about anything. They take care of you.”
    The crowd was raucous when the veterans returned home, but there were equally enthusiastic crowds greeting them when they arrived at Dulles International Airport, Waite said.
    It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, Waite said, from the beginning through the mail call on the plane ride home when veterans receive cards, notes and pictures sent by their families, friends and strangers to them.
    “There was a lot of enjoyment and a lot of joking around by the veterans,” Waite said.
    It’s a trip every veteran should take, he added.
    “You’re going to have a good time and enjoy it,” he said. “I look at it not as a welcome home for us, but as something nice they did for veterans.”

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