Vietnam Homecoming: Dad’s Journey with the Honor Flight Network

My dad and Steven before Honor Flight Rochester

I remember only a handful of times when my father was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears welled in his eyes. When I got in a car accident, he arrived at the scene and saw me in a full back brace. At my sister’s wedding, he talked about the man he always imagined for her. When my siblings and I threw him and my mom a gala 50th wedding anniversary party, we invited all their friends. And this weekend, when he walked the rope line at the homecoming of mission 81 of the Honor Flight in Rochester, New York, with my husband. It was the first time I cried, too.

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What is the Honor Flight Network?

The Honor Flight Network was organized as a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring American veterans, particularly those who served during World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. It is a heartfelt tribute to their service. The Honor Flight initiative provides free flights for veterans and a guardian to Washington, D.C., where they embark on an overnight city tour visiting monuments created in their honor. It’s worth noting that many of these veterans, including my father, are now in their 80s, and some are even older. This initiative ensures veterans get a chance to see all the beautiful monuments constructed in their honor.

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My dad and Steven were part of a group of 61 veterans who embarked on the 81st mission of the Honor Flight which flew them from Rochester to Washington, D.C. This particular flight departed early on a Saturday morning and included a diverse array of veterans: one from World War II, 44 from the Vietnam War, 11 from the Cold War, and six from the Korean War. The Honor Flight Network conducts six such flights annually through 44 hubs nationwide. This network was established in 2006, and over the past 18 years, they’ve had the privilege of flying more than 500,000 veterans to the nation’s capital to pay homage to its monuments. To date, Honor Flights Rochester has warmly welcomed and served more than 4,000 local veterans.

My Dad

Jesse Sellers is a true American hero, even though he never set out to be one all those years ago. My father enlisted in the Army right after high school. He served as an Infantryman during the Vietnam War and displayed exceptional courage. He was wounded, receiving numerous awards and accolades for his bravery. One remarkable moment included rescuing a wounded NFL player named Rocky Blier by carrying him to safety on his back.

A Look at Honor Flight’s 81st Mission

Dad had to wear a burnt-orange colored button-down shirt, which he absolutely despised, despite the fact that the color actually suited him quite well. My mother and I had both expressed our fondness for that color, but he still grumbled about it being ugly. He painstakingly ironed the wrinkles out of his shirt and my husband’s, which was a rather garish pumpkin orange and, truth be told, the uglier of the two.

My dad has always been quite a fashion-conscious individual. His wardrobe and shoe collection could rival that of most women I know. However, I can’t recall ever seeing him in anything other than shades of blue, black, brown, and, of course, his Fraternity purple and gold.

Dad and Steven had to be at the airport by 0400 for check-in and breakfast before their 0600 flight to BWI. After they left, my mother and I decided to return to bed. We arrived at the airport around noon, where clear signs guided us to the designated area for Honor Flight participants. Following the signs, we parked on the upper deck. Once inside, we checked in and were given orange wristbands required to enter the brief closing ceremony following the parade. Veterans are encouraged to invite up to 3 guests for the closing ceremony at the airport– a chance to share in the celebration of their lives.

In Washington D.C.

The flight arrived in Washington D.C. around 7 a.m. to meet the tour buses. Steven said both the plane and buses were new and comfortable and that he especially enjoyed the crew’s sense of humor.

Trip Itinerary

Unfortunately, the itinerary we received did not include times for the memorial visits. But the tour includes stops at the WWII, Korean, Lincoln, and Vietnam Memorials before lunch at the FDR Memorials.

After lunch, they visited the Air Force, Military Women’s, and Iwo Jima Memorials. The only scheduled visit was to Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guards, which during this time of the year occurs on the half hour until 7 pm.

They returned to the BWI Hilton for a wonderful banquet, an open bar happy hour, and an opportunity to socialize, sharing their stories and memories with each other. My dad and husband both cherished this experience, as it’s not often they get to be in the company of so many people who truly understand their life experiences. I have yet to hear the speeches, but some volunteers expressed how heartfelt their words were. The next morning, everyone gathered for one last breakfast before returning to Rochester for the welcome home ceremony.

The Welcome Home Parade

The parade was a lengthy receiving line stretching from the first floor to the bottom. People had lined up behind a rope barrier adorned with signs, flowers, and flags. Each of the 62 veterans, accompanied by their guardians, volunteers, and honor guard, made their way through the airport terminal, either walking or in wheelchairs. They shook hands, received kisses, and received the gratitude they may or may not have received after returning from their respective wars.

I watched each veteran with a heart filled with pride, many of them marked with pink or red lipstick from well-wishers, eagerly anticipating the moment when I would spot my own father. And then, there he was. His face was radiant, his eyes wide and brimming with energy as he enthusiastically greeted each outstretched hand.

And then, the music began to play – George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” – the unofficial anthem of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. We had been standing with a dozen members from his fraternity, along with one sister from Delta Sigma Theta (the sorority my sister and I belong to), for over an hour, waiting for his arrival. I can’t explain how, but that infectious smile of his grew even bigger and brighter as he hugged his fraternity brothers. Tears of happiness welled up in his eyes as he acknowledged their love and support on this chilly Sunday afternoon.

The Inspiration for the Honor Flight

The Honor Flight program has been faithfully transporting veterans to Washington, D.C. for a remarkable 18 years. This noble initiative was founded by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician’s assistant. His inspiration came from escorting veterans to the World War II Memorial, and he established the Honor Flights to ensure that every veteran who desired to visit these monuments could do so without encountering financial hardships.

This small but meaningful token of appreciation provides my father with the opportunity to visit these memorials alongside other like-minded individuals. It also allows them to come together, share their stories, and bond during a private banquet with an open bar at the hotel on Saturday night.

This organization is truly remarkable, and the weekend fills with powerful emotions as veterans tour the monuments of Washington, D.C. It’s a long-awaited homecoming that carries profound significance.

As you’d expect, the banquet becomes an emotionally charged event where each veteran gets the opportunity to speak. I haven’t heard the speeches yet, but it seems that both my husband and father seized the opportunity to express their deep love for family, country, the military, and each other.

You Don’t Have to be Born Family

One of Steven’s favorite sayings is, “You don’t have to be born into a family to be family.” He and my father share remarkably similar humble backgrounds, with the only difference being that my dad was an only child, while Steven has siblings.

However, my dad didn’t remain on his own for long. He built the family he wasn’t born into, starting with his marriage to my mom, instantly becoming a brother to her six siblings. He then expanded his love on a global scale by enlisting in the Army right after high school. Later on, he played a pivotal role in founding another close-knit community – the Lambda Xi chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity in Seoul, South Korea. His family has grown to be vast and more diverse than shared DNA could ever represent.

Yet, despite the depth of this chosen family, my dad, whom I still lovingly call “daddy,” always keeps the importance of shared DNA in the forefront. He’s not only an incredible brother and friend but also an exceptional husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He chuckles when he reminisces about his friends downsizing their houses while he went bigger, just so there would always be enough room for all of us to visit.

His unwavering devotion serves as an inspiration and a reminder of the love that deserves to be celebrated and honored. The Honor Flight is just one of the many ways we can do just that for a man who has given so much of himself to others.

Volunteers/ Guardians

I cannot stress how amazing all the volunteers were. You could see their enthusiasm for what they were doing. The volunteers were very helpful. Even though they had volunteered for years, many of the volunteers still experienced strong emotions. There are lots of opportunities available. The program impressed my mom and me so much that both of us are now considering volunteering on future flights. The Honor Flight needs volunteers to be greeters and ground crew at the airports, at the memorials, tour guides, or guardians in case the veterans don’t have one.

And a special thanks to the students from Spry Middle School in Webster. The letters you wrote my father were touching. They will always remain a cherished memory of the trip.

My father asked my husband to be his guardian. They require all veterans to have a guardian. Their primary responsibility is carrying bags and chaperoning their service member for the weekend. The Guardian is often a family member, friend, or volunteer from the Veteran’s home city who accompanies the Veteran on the plane. Guardians also share a hotel room with their veterans and must make a $450 donation that covers their food, flight, and accommodations. For more information about becoming an Honor Flight tour guide, please email honorflight.tourguides@gmail.com.

How to Apply for the Honor Flight

Visiting the website is straightforward. The organizers will patiently guide you through the paperwork you need. Veterans gather from 44 hubs across the country. They embark on a journey that includes visits to the World War II and Korean War Memorials. Veterans witness the changing of the guard at the Unknown Soldier Memorial. They also touch the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, a powerful symbol of their dedicated service and sacrifices. The Honor Flight Network has flown more than 500,000 veterans to Washington, DC.

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