Similar to many Vietnam veterans, James Earl didn’t receive a parade or welcome home bash after returning from the war.
After four long decades, Earl was properly honored for his service. Earl, who lives in The Meadows Assisted Living facility in Fall River, was one of 91 Vietnam and Korean War veterans that took the Badger Honor Flight Nov. 3. Earl, along with The Meadows Life Enrichment Director Stephanie Schneider, flew from Madison to Washington, D.C. for a very busy, but very memorable one-day trip.
Earl was asked a few times previously to take the Honor Flight, but each time turned it down. He just didn’t feel right about going, believing other veterans were more deserving. This fall, Earl finally relented and had an experience he will never forget.
“At that time, I didn’t really feel like a Vietnam vet; I just stayed on the ship and didn’t really do much,” Earl said. “But when I got (to Washington), I realized what I had done and that if I hadn’t done what I did, there would be a few more names on that wall (the Vietnam War Memorial).”
Along with seeing the Vietnam Memorial, Earl visited Washington’s other service memorials. He also witnessed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Marine Corps War Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial.
Earl, a Marine Corps veteran, grew up in a small town in southern Illinois. His Midwestern upbringing couldn’t prepare him for the horrors he would see in a war-torn country. In the spring of 1975, Saigon, in South Vietnam, fell to the North Vietnamese, causing many to flee what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Earl, leading a squadron of 28 soldiers, still vividly remembers Vietnamese refugees trying to board their ship any way possible.
“There were more than 2,000 refugees aboard the ship I was guarding,” Earl said. “For two weeks, I had to watch the refugees and facilitate feeding them, which was two 55-gallon barrels of rice every day. To this day, I still can’t eat rice.”
In the weeks that followed, Earl and his crew sailed to Guam, the Philippines, and other parts of South East Asia. At each stop, groups of refugees departed the ship, hoping for a new life of freedom and peace. Earl served in the Marines from August of 1972 through August, 1976. Not long after returning home from Vietnam, his abdominal area became severely infected. More than 40 years later, Earl still lives with ailments brought on by his stint in Vietnam.
Unlike many Vietnam veterans, Earl wasn’t drafted into service. He opted to join the Marines at age 17.
“To me it was nothing but a job,” Earl said. “I didn’t have to do manual labor, but there was a lot of mental labor.”
Seeing the many names of deceased soldiers at the Vietnam War Memorial was the most emotional part of the trip. It made Earl realize the magnitude of not only his service, but all the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in a conflict that spanned more than a decade.
The Nov. 3 Honor Flight was also Schneider’s first. She was honored to serve as Earl’s guardian.
“The welcome home was also a touching experience,” Schneider said. “Having so many people at the airport thanking him for his service … that was touching. It was the welcome home these guys deserve.”
“I couldn’t reach far enough to touch everyone’s hand,” Earl said.
When Earl returned home in 1976, he received anything but a warm reception. The controversial Vietnam War triggered years of protest in the U.S. Many believed young men were dying in a foreign land for a lost cause. Earl remembers the cold shoulder he and many Vietnam veterans received following the war.
“When I started college, I got booed; I had rocks and sticks thrown at me … called every name in the book,” Earl said. “There was nothing special when I returned, not that I remember, in my hometown.”
Schneider, along with the staff at The Meadows, nominated and convinced Earl to take the flight. There is a waiting list for veterans to get on the Honor Flight, but due to Earl’s health problems, he was moved near the top. Upon takeoff, he wasn’t sure how he would feel about the trip, but looking back he’s fortunate for the opportunity.
“I loved the welcome home, I really did,” Earl said.
In addition to the flight, Earl received letters from school children thanking him for his service, along with appreciation letters from Gov. Scott Walker, and members of Congress and the Senate.
Badger Honor Flight, started in 2005, is part of the National Honor Flight Network. In 2008, Wisconsin began its honor flight to offer World War II veterans the chance to go to Washington, D.C. Earl was part of the 34th Badger Honor Flight and, according to Schneider, 2,922 Wisconsin veterans have taken the flight.
As the population of World War II veterans declines, the Honor Flight is accommodating more Korean and Vietnam War soldiers.
“They said at the morning sendoff, ‘Please, if you know of any World War II veterans still alive who haven’t taken the Honor Flight, let us know,’” Schneider said.