(First published in the Fannin Sentinel on September 24, 2015.)
On a beautiful September morning, as the community gathered at the Fannin County Middle School for a prayer service in remembrance of 9/11, the volunteers of the Huey Maintenance Platoon were busy preparing the Huey for its second open display in seven days. Not long after the North Georgia Honor Guard fired their volleys in salute to the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost on that tragic day, the Fannin County Veterans Memorial Park came alive with visitors eager to see a helicopter that also stands in remembrance of another painful time in our nation's history: the Vietnam War.
I was born almost six years after the Vietnam War ended, but growing up as the son of a Vietnam Veteran, I always had a sense of just how painful the war and its aftermath was for our veterans. And now, working alongside other Vietnam Veterans as we restored the Huey, I've become even more keenly aware. I heard their stories of returning home from the war, only to be harassed and spat upon. Imagine walking through an airport in your uniform, only days removed from Vietnam, and being confronted by protesters asking how many babies did you kill in the war. It happened to my father when he came home. It happened to a lot of returning veterans.
The guns fell silent in Vietnam some 40 years ago now, and our Vietnam Veterans are finally treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The healing process has been long and hard over those 40 years. For many veterans, some of those old wounds will never fully heal. But community projects such as the Huey, and the admiration of young people, have gone a long way in healing those wounds. I have seen it myself firsthand.
After the 9/11 prayer service concluded, the park filled with smiling children who were excited to see inside the Huey. As they sat in the seats and looked around in wonder, their natural curiosity inspired them to ask questions about the helicopter, how it worked and how it flew, and some asked about the war. Our local Vietnam Veterans were there to answer all of their questions, and I could hear the pride in their voices as they talked about their experiences with the young people. There was a time in the not so distant past when that pride in their voice wasn't always there. I couldn't help but to feel a sense of pride myself, along with our other volunteers who didn't serve in Vietnam, for having a small part in that healing process.
Near the end of the day, a grandmother was browsing through our displays when she paused for a closer look at our painting of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., which lists the names of the 58,300 Americans who died in the war. After looking at the painting for a moment in silence, she turned to her young grandson and asked if he knew what the Wall was. He did. "There's a lot of names on that wall," she said in a somber voice. Behind the Huey stands Fannin County's own Wall with the names of its servicemen who died in Vietnam. Her husband later told me that he personally knew two of those names. I didn't ask, but I had a feeling she knew some of those names too.
Sometimes people ask us "why" the Huey is here. It is here for those names on the Wall, and for the people who knew those names. It is here for all of the Vietnam Veterans who were never told "welcome home," and it is here for all of the Vietnam Veterans who never came home. And as I witnessed on that September day, it is here to help heal old wounds.
That is why the Huey is here.
UH-1 Huey 70-16446 is located at the Fannin County Veterans Memorial Park in Blue Ridge, GA.
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