For nearly 40 years, Vietnam veteran Scott Gilbert has endured difficulty and pain when walking, after losing his lower right leg to a land mine.
On May 9, Gilbert joined 94 other west Alabama veterans in touring the Vietnam Wall and numerous other memorials in Washington. It became a “sentimental journey” of sorts for Gilbert, who faced down his memories of the Vietnam War and the years of physical and emotional pain he endured.
During the 9th annual Tuscaloosa Rotary Honor Flight – a project sponsored by members of the Tuscaloosa Rotary Club – the veterans were treated to a free plane ride and tours of the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
The group included at least four recipients of the prestigious Purple Heart medal, as well as two World War II veterans. Many veterans were accompanied by family members or assisted by a “guardian” who paid their own expenses to attend. Guardians help less mobile veterans with wheelchairs or other needs.
For Gilbert and several of the Vietnam veterans, the journey was bittersweet. They rose in the wee morning hours for the 7 a.m. takeoff from Tuscaloosa Regional Airport. Even before they left the airport terminal, the magnitude of the trip hit many of the veterans, who stopped to add their names to a small poster for the Tuscaloosa Rotary Club. Many stopped to greet acquaintances or friends, beginning a day in which many would share their stories.
“I was drafted out of Auburn University in 1968, in my second year in spring quarter,” said Gilbert, who was a member of the 199th Army Light Infantry Brigade. “Four and a half months later, I was a combat rifleman in Vietnam, humping the paddies, which means marching wherever we had to go,” he said. “The length of time I was there, from July 1968 through December 1968, I was wounded twice. The second one was when I lost my leg. But I’d do all it again for this country.”
Despite life-threatening injuries, Gilbert went on to graduate from Auburn, later becoming an office manager at Alabama Power’s Gardendale Office.
Touring the memorials, Vietnam veteran Jack Whatley was moved to tears.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think being here would affect me this way,” said Whatley, who served as a battlefield medic in Vietnam. “It’s just knowing what all of this means. I’ve had my socks knocked off twice today.
“It takes me back to all the times I jumped from helicopters,” said Whatley, who spent 22 years in the Air Force. “I can’t tell you how many times I jumped 10 or 20 feet from helicopters. You do what you gotta do – the guy on the ground depends on you.”
Whatley said he was always aware that he stood between death for many young men.
“When I was 7 years old, my granddaddy gave me a pocketknife. I didn’t know then that I’d use that pocketknife in Vietnam to do two tracheotomies that would save men’s lives,” said Whatley, who has been married more than 40 years and has seven children and 18 grandchildren. He is a jewelry designer for Gillis Jewelry in Northport.
At 20 years old, Lou Jacobs was an airplane mechanic at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He was stationed there from 1962 to 1966.
“I was fortunate not to have been sent to Vietnam. But I took my job seriously. I thought about whether the planes would make it across the pond. I can come here and find solace in that,” he said, his gaze traveling across the iron-wreath-adorned state pillars at the World War II Memorial.
“This wasn’t here when I served,” Jacobs said of the memorial, whose construction did not begin until September 2001. “I am glad to see this.”
George Lowrey was drafted into the Navy at 20 years old, serving in Da Nang, a coastal city in Vietnam, from August 1966 to July 1967.
“The first day I was there, they asked me if I’d heard what a bullet sounded like going through your head,” said Lowrey, who lives in Fayette County. He was joined by his 17-year-old grandson, Mason Fowler, a junior at Berry High School in Fayette County.
“I still remember the daily trips up and down the Da Nang River,” he said. “It was a pretty harbor. People lived in little shacks out over the water.
“I worked in the Lighterage Division in the Navy, handling cargo on an LCM landing craft,” Lowrey said of the ships constructed of welded steel that can carry 60 tons of cargo. “The LCM had huge ramps used for bringing supplies into the country. By the time I left, they’d built a deep-water pier in the harbor that could handle three ships at a time.”
Lowrey was unnerved by the unpopularity of the war when he returned home. “Even when I came back in ’67, people would walk on the other side of the road,” he said.
Grant Gray is a graduate of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham who served from 1967 to 1968 in Da Nang. After he was hit by mortar rounds, Army surgeons had to remove 2 feet of his intestines, and a doctor dug shrapnel from his heel. He still has internal metal stitches. Gray was awarded a Purple Heart.Sporting a handlebar moustache, Gray’s energy and genial manner belie the lasting injuries and pain he sustained since Vietnam. It’s been 51 years, but the memories of the war are always in the background.
“Even today, it’s a hard thing for him to talk about,” said Gray’s wife of nearly 50 years, Jeannie. “He has never forgotten Sam Nation, a friend from Woodlawn High School, who didn’t return home.”
Gray was on leave and still healing when the couple met at the old Cascade Plunge Swimming Pool in Birmingham in 1968. On Sept. 21, the couple will celebrate their golden anniversary.
“He was dreading being here today, and looking forward to it at the same time,” said Jeannie, who retired from Druid City Hospital. “He got emotional. I’d rather him be with people who understand. One good thing is the platoon he was in has gotten together for 15 years. Out of his whole squad, only three men came back.”
Like Jacobs, Lawrence Genery served during the Vietnam War but was fortunate to be stationed stateside. He was in the U.S. Air Force from 1967 to 1971, serving stints at Shemya Air Force Base, now called Eareckson Air Force Station, in Alaska; Hamilton Air Force Base in California, now closed; and Minot Airport Base in North Dakota.
Genery was a welder on a flight line. When he was released from duty, he decided it was time to start his life. He had met his sweetheart, Linda, in San Rafael, Calif. The couple married on Aug. 29, 1970. The next day, he began working at Alabama Power as a laborer.
“I’ve been wanting to go to Washington and see the memorials for a long time,” said Genery, who retired as a local operations lineman.
It takes an army
Many people are required to organize the yearly Tuscaloosa Honor Flight.
Throughout the year, Tuscaloosa Rotary Club Honor Flight Chairman Jordan Plaster and Director Becky York, with several other members, plan for the flight.
After one flight ends, York begins seeking other veterans who have never had a chance to visit the war memorials.
Plaster has said that their hope is the Honor Flights can be part of a final healing process for the veterans. York said the Honor Flights provide a way of “paying back” veterans for their service, starting with her father, who served during World War II, as well as his brother and other friends who served.
“This looked like a good way to pay back some people, and it’s important to me that we continue to do things for our citizens as they age,” York said. “We want to do things for young people, and we want them to learn about war, which is one reason we take young people on this trip. But you also want to honor the older people that have served in the past. I think that it’s very important that we don’t forget where we’ve been.”
The Alabama Power Foundation helped sponsor Tuscaloosa Honor Flight. Several Alabama Power employees and retirees lent their time and energies to the project, serving as guardians and in other capacities.
“It is a privilege to support the Honor Flight and our veterans, to send them on a trip of a lifetime,” said Mark Crews, vice president of Alabama Power’s Western Division, which is headquartered in Tuscaloosa. “Providing this incredible opportunity to our veterans is truly a community effort and we are honored to again partner in it. We hope our support serves as a small token of appreciation for everything our veterans have done to serve our country.”
A hero’s welcome
After a full day of touring, the weary veterans flew into Tuscaloosa Regional Airport around 8:30 p.m.
At the right side of the plane, members of the Tuscaloosa Fire Department fired a water cannon. Looking out a window on the left side of the plane, Genery spotted the huge crowd that awaited. Shock covered his face.
“This is it, all these people,” he said, in surprise.
As the veterans disembarked, a crowd of about 650 cheered and shouted welcomes. Many onlookers held flashlights, and several family members and friends held posters with greetings, including “Welcome back!” and “We are proud of you!”
A small path opened between the crowd to allow the veterans into the terminal. Along the way, veterans were greeted with handshakes, hugs, back pats and smiles. It was a far cry from what most of them remembered about their return home from war.
Many of the veterans discussed how much they’d enjoyed the chance to see the Vietnam Wall and other memorials. Whatley, for one, already has plans to return.
“I’m sure I’ll go again,” he said, to “soak in” the atmosphere. “Next time, I’ll bring my wife and family with me. We’ll spend some time there together.”