Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down Honor Flights 16 months ago, at least 757 veterans have passed away waiting for a chance to visit the nation’s war memorials in Washington, D.C.
Ronald Dean’s family wanted to make sure he wasn’t the next one on that list.
On Thursday, Dean — a 74-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 — made his first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, accompanied by an emotional cohort of family members.
In pre-coronavirus times, scenes like this were common on the National Mall, as the Honor Flight program brought thousands of veterans a year from all over the country to tour the memorials and meet with local officials.
Lawmakers and veterans groups often greet buses full of veterans to the sites with cheering, photographs and copious thanks for military service rendered long ago. Those flights are set to resume next month, and the program expects to transport its 250,000th veteran to the nation’s capital sometime this fall.
But Dean was recently diagnosed with dementia, and his family worried that he may not have any time left to wait.
“When we talked about what else he wanted to do, he said he had always wished he had made it here to see the wall,” said his daughter Joy. “So we booked plane tickets right away.”
After flying in from California early in the morning with his wife, four children and four of his 12 grandchildren, Dean arrived at the memorial to loud applause from a small crowd of veterans advocates waving American flags, anxious to greet a man who they had never met before.
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to honor him and his service to the country,” said Matthew Shuman, board member for the Honor Flight Network who helped organize the welcome.
The crowd followed Dean as he walked down to examine the names of fellow service members lost during the war more than five decades ago. Sporting a shirt which read “I’m a dad, a grandpa and a Vietnam vet,” Dean picked up an entourage of a few extra tourists as he traveled slowly between each polished granite panel.
As he searched the site, he spoke softly about his high school classmates Terrance Nelson and Ronald Vilardo — “Ronald was a serious artist, I was just in that class to horse around” — and got emotional as he saw other names of Marines he served alongside who never returned home.
A nearby park attendant helped him get rubbings of each fallen friend.
“It’s all just overwhelming,” he said, as his wife, Paula, teared up nearby. “The number of men and women here [on the wall], these were lives that were cut short. I remember having thoughts about why not me, why them.
“This was just something I wanted to do,” he said, hugging his grandson as he answered questions. “This was an experience I’m glad I had, this was worthy of coming here.”
Honor Flight officials hope that’s a sentiment that repeats itself again and again in the months to come. The first post-pandemic flight is scheduled for Aug. 16, with dozens of veterans like Dean already planning their visits.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.