With sacrifice comes honor.
For about 100 Vietnam veterans seeing the Vietnam War Memorial on May 10 – many for their first time – it was a moment to pay respect to the 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in the conflict. It was also a time for those veterans to be honored for their service, to reflect on the past and to heal.
The trip would not have been possible without the Tuscaloosa Rotary Honor Flight, which sponsored its 8th annual event to send veterans on the flight. With help from the Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa, the Vietnam veterans took a chartered Boeing 737 from Tuscaloosa Regional Airport to Washington, D.C. The trip included stops at the World War II and Korean War memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Arlington National Cemetery Changing of the Guard and the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial.
Being at the Vietnam War Memorial stirred memories – good and bad – and brought tears to the eyes of many a veteran such as Northport resident Paul Bagwell. The opportunity to be there, amongst so many veterans, also rendered healing for the twice-injured Bagwell.
“Seeing the memorial made me feel better about myself,” said Bagwell, who was awarded two Purple Heart medals after Vietnam. “The more I looked at it, the more I got relief. I couldn’t find the names of the lost friends. But the people that were there, the schoolkids and other people, showed respect. I didn’t see a lot of that when I came back home.”
Bagwell was drafted into the U.S. Army just 26 days after graduating from the former Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport. Within days of arrival in Xuan Loc, Vietnam, Bagwell took a sniper’s bullet to the wrist bone. Medics cleaned the wound and put a support on his arm so that it would remain stationary and heal.
About 28 days into his tour, Bagwell was in an Army tank attached to the 25th Infantry, helping to clear the way for troops in battle. His tank was hit by numerous RTGs, a type of handheld rocket. From the seven-man crew, only Bagwell and another serviceman survived.
Bagwell underwent several major surgeries at U.S. Air Force Camp Drake in Japan, spending a year and a half in the hospital. Doctors attempted to remove the shrapnel from his body, from his heart down to his toes. Bagwell still has shrapnel in his heart and continues to endure pain.
“It’s not an enjoyable life with the pain I’ve got,” he said. “They can’t do anything with my heart because it would cause more damage to remove the shrapnel.
“It was good that I got to go to the memorial. I’ve lived with this for nearly 60 years,” Bagwell said. “I had no choice. I did what I had to do. It’s not fun memories. But it helped me to go to the memorial.”
Bringing a sense of closure and healing to those servicemen is among the Tuscaloosa Rotary Club’s mission in supporting the Honor Flights.
Jordan Plaster, chairman of Tuscaloosa Rotary Honor Flight, said the 8th Honor Flight was “something special.” The Tuscaloosa Rotary Club raises funds in sponsorship of Honor Flight, which it has made possible since 2010. Groups such as Alabama Power’s Western Division Office, which has donated more than $18,000 since 2013, also make the event possible.
“The healing process from any war has to be difficult,” Plaster said. “The Vietnam War veterans were exposed to the many horrors that come with war. The way these veterans were treated when they returned home from the war was bad. … We hope that this can be part of a final healing process for them.”
Becky York, Honor Flight director, said the Tuscaloosa Rotary Club wants to recognize and honor Vietnam Veterans for their many sacrifices “during an unpopular war in extremely difficult conditions.”
“Many of our veterans said, ‘It’s a dream come true!’” York said. “We were glad to help make this happen.”