The Wall: Vietnam veteran Leroy Blackwell's Honor Flight

Waiting for veterans.jpg

A new group is honoring 74 veterans with a trip to our nation's Capitol. This is the first year for the Oklahoma and Arkansas Honor Flight.

Veterans visit memorials in Washington D.C. at absolutely no cost thanks to community donations. Channel 8's Kristin Dickerson was invited on the trip to accompany Navy veteran Leroy Blackwell.

All my bags are packed

For Leroy Blackwell, this Honor Flight is a "thank you" 50 years in the making.

"I served in Vietnam in 1966," Blackwell said during an interview in his hotel lobby the night before he left. "I was on a river boat. A flat-bottomed, barge-like thing that hovered around the coastlines of Vietnam."

Around 4:45 the next morning, which was only about six hours after we finished our interview, one of the event's organizers, Wayne Perego, announced to a packed bus of veterans and their guardians, "Once we get to the airport, it's going to be non-stop." He was correct.

A grateful public

At the airport, while standing in line to get boarding passes, Blackwell points out what he's already experienced.

"Motorcycles, flags flying everywhere, it's just been an absolutely unbelievable morning so far," he said.

On arrival near D.C., the group is welcomed by men and women in uniform.

"A jazz band and singers and dancing girls," Blackwell says with a wide grin.

For the record, there were no dancing girls, but there was a very grateful public.

"These people, it's total strangers coming out and with such sincerity too," Blackwell said about the busy airport travelers who stopped to cheer on the veterans. "You know it wasn't a fake deal. They were really glad to see us and thank us for our service."

This was not the case when Blackwell first returned home from Vietnam.

Looking back

While looking at a scrapbook filled with pictures and news articles documenting his time in the service, Blackwell said, "I have trouble now looking at these young men. All of them were a median age of 19."

He said he hadn't looked at the pictures in a long time.

"I was looking through the album, in preparation for this interview, I was looking through the album and it brought back memories," said Blackwell. "And I saw pictures of me and my shipmates and my thought was 'my gosh, these are teenagers. What are they doing over there on the other side of the world? We should be back here catching sand bass and turkey hunting and things like that.'"

Instead, they fought.

Blackwell was injured in battle and later was diagnosed cancer caused by Agent Orange. But what still pains him today is when he finally came home from Vietnam he wasn't welcomed because of the war's controversy.

"I've thought about this a thousand times," said Blackwell. "It was like I was bringing my gift, my sacrifice, back to my homeland and it was rejected."

He buried his feelings of anger and loss decades ago, and he's avoided anything that might bring them back to the surface.

"I just haven't found the nerve to go back to that depth and relive . . . that," said Blackwell.

The Wall

He's walking to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, The Wall.

"I can see it in the distance and I'm tempted to turn around," Blackwell said.

The emotions he's kept buried for decades are now staring right at him through the names of those killed.

He continues to walk closer to the memorial until he's along side it.

"Even now the atmosphere has sort of changed," Blackwell said. "And I glance sideways out of my periphery and to a lot of people it's just scratchings on a wall, but my God. There's a story behind each one of these men . . . I feel like I almost need to apologize . . . just for a whim, just for a circumstance that might have changed, they would've been here, I would've been there."

He only stayed at the wall a few minutes, and that was enough.

"And I've dreaded this for years and years and years," Blackwell said. "Thinking maybe I would just one day die and never have to be faced with this, but now I'm glad that I had the opportunity to come and look at these men."

Life-changing experience

Ten days after that moment, after the plane ride home reading letters from children thanking him for his service, and after the welcome-home reception, as emotionally powerful as a spiritual revival, we met Mr. Blackwell in his hometown, Locust Grove.

Today he describes the Honor Flight as "a life-changing experience," said Blackwell. "That may sound a little dramatic for a one-day trip, but still the baggage that I carried around that was so deep-seated I had failed to even recognize it."

He said the Honor Flight gave him closure and he's finally at peace.

"I am very, very blessed," said Blackwell. "I would encourage any Veteran that's eligible to go to make sure they get invited on an Honor Flight and to go. It will change their lives also I think."

Purple Heart

In the extra videos attached to this story, learn about Mr. Blackwell's journey to receive a Purple Hurt for getting injured during battle. He's worked for the last seven years to receive it but is still in need of help.

O & A Honor Flight | Learn more

"We can't all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by." - Will Rogers

Veteran's application | Donate to help a veteran attend

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off