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Omaha Magazine

The Final Mission

Nov 16, 2017 02:35PM ● By Joyce Winfield, Ph.D.
Bill and Evonne Williams of Omaha frequently use the words “honor” and “privilege” when talking about 11 honor flights they organized from May 2008 to May 2017.

The Williamses, co-founders of Patriotic Productions, embraced the nonprofit Honor Flight Network’s nationwide mission “to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.”

An impressive number of Nebraskans—3,235—who are World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans participated in the flights. Patriotic Productions raised $3,100,000 to cover expenses for everything from planes to name tags.

The first Heartland Honor Flight departed Omaha carrying 102 World War II veterans on May 21, 2008. It became a reality after the Williamses read a magazine article about honor flights in fall 2007. Their reaction was, “Why not Nebraska?”

Bill admits the money “trickled in very, very slowly” for that first flight. But a Valentine’s Day phone call in 2008 resulted in a donation that jump-started subsequent contributions. Cara Whitney, wife of Dan Whitney (aka Larry the Cable Guy), asked Bill what it was going to cost to send the first plane of veterans. The response was $70,000 just for the plane; Cara said, “Done.”

“So there you go,” Bill says, explaining that 1,483 World War II veterans from 200 Nebraska towns were on seven flights from May 2008 to April 2009.

Two flights for Korean War veterans from Nebraska followed. In October 2013, the Korean War Combat Veterans Honor Flight carried 135 veterans. In March 2014, the Korean War Honor Flight loaded three planes with 462 aboard.

Evonne mentions the March 2014 flight as one of her most memorable. It had snowed in Washington, D.C., and the veterans were at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which features 19 stainless steel statues. The statues are each about 7 feet tall and represent members of the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force. All are wearing ponchos that cover their weapons and equipment.

“Our veterans that day were all wearing ponchos because of the snow, which was wet, heavy snow almost like rain. And cold,” Evonne says. “Here they were as young men in the statues, and here they are 50 years later as old men.”

Two years after the second Korean War Honor Flight, the first Vietnam veterans left for Washington, D.C., in June 2016. The Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight consisted of three charter jets with 502 on board from Nebraska.

May 1, 2017, was called The Final Mission; 653 Vietnam veterans rode on four planes for their day in the nation’s capital. These Nebraskans have the distinction of being the largest group of Vietnam veterans from one state to collectively gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Reflecting on the 11 honor flights, Evonne says: “I think we thought it was going to be one flight and we would be done. Bill is infamous for saying, ‘This is going to be the last one.’”

Continually raising necessary funds was a major issue that sometimes caused sleepless nights for the Williamses. “It’s tough,” Bill says. “This last one was a $600,000 deal. Four planes and each plane was $87,500. Figure in 15 buses on this end and 15 buses on that end. You just can’t keep going to the well trying to find this amount of money.”

Trying to find volunteers was not an issue. The Williamses readily acknowledge their “committed volunteers” who assisted during different phases of the honor flights. Evonne mentions neighbors, church friends, and friends of their children among the volunteers. Bill estimates 300 people served as guardians, whose duties included physically assisting the veterans at the airports, during the flights, and at the memorials.

“The volunteers were incredible. Just such a good team and a core group of about a dozen to 20 who would always step up,” Evonne says.

“We called them the dream team, the dozen who helped with most flights,” Bill adds.

It has been estimated that 7,000 people waited at Lincoln Airport the evening of May 1 to welcome home the Vietnam veterans on The Final Mission. Referring to that number, Evonne says, “It was wonderful, and that was such a good way for those who brought children to teach patriotism. This is how we honor our veterans.”

She stresses the most valuable part of the last three or four flights was the welcome-home receptions the veterans received at the airport. “If people didn’t get off their couches and stand in line for hours, it wouldn’t have been what it was. So, it really was a community event that made it so powerful.”

In turn, Bill acknowledges the welcome the veterans received upon arrival in Washington, D.C. The planes flew to either Washington Dulles International Airport or Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He says most of the veterans knew there would be a homecoming upon returning to Nebraska, but they didn’t expect what happened when they arrived in Washington, D.C.

“We notified the airports so they knew we were coming. They got the water cannon salute over the planes. Walking inside, passengers stopped and cheered the veterans. They were really touched by that,” Bill says.

Local Vietnam Veterans on the Final Mission

Omahans Bill “Doc” Caster, Kurt L. Geschwender, and Roddy R. Moore definitely were touched by the expressions of thanks at both the Washington, D.C., and Lincoln airports. The Vietnam veterans flew on The Final Mission and commented specifically about the Lincoln homecoming.

Moore summarizes his emotions as both shocked and embarrassed. “I never considered myself as a hero, and hearing people call me that was embarrassing. But at the same time, it was an honor to see that many people who came out to wish us well.”

Saying he was completely in awe, Caster notes it was not just fellow veterans who were there. “The younger crowd—from the kids, young adults, and some millennials. I finally felt we got the respect we should have had for serving our country.”

Geschwender says it was a humbling experience. “I was saluted by a two-star general as well as several staff officers. I snapped my snappiest salute back to them. Senior officers generally don’t initiate a salute to one of the troops.”

Equally moving for these three men was being at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Moore calls it the most memorable aspect of the flight. “I appreciate and thank Bill and Evonne for the opportunity to see The Wall and pay my respects to those who didn’t come home. I found nine names of friends.”

Moore was 19 in December 1965 when he was drafted into the Army (4th Infantry Division). His unit had been in Vietnam about three weeks when he was injured. “We had been on Operation Cedar Falls. If I remember correctly, it was in Tay Ninh Province by the Cambodian border,” he says. Incoming fire came across a rice paddy. “They estimated there was about 50 of them, and there was 16 of us. We had six killed. I think three got out without being hit. Everybody else was either killed or wounded.” Moore sustained injuries to his right arm and right leg, in addition to a shrapnel wound on his right side.

Standing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 50 years later, Moore remembers the six young men who were killed on Jan. 5, 1967. “It was extremely emotional because I remember them as they were—19, 20 years old and they were just young kids back then, as all of us were. To see that first name and all of a sudden remember his face, remember the way he walked and talked. They’re all together on The Wall now. At The Wall, you start remembering things you tried to forget, and I did. I tried to suppress it for a number of years.”

Geschwender enlisted in the Marine Corps (1st Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines) in July 1967 when he was 18. Trained as an ammunition technician in demolitions, he was responsible for munitions, management, disposition, and disbursement to the various units. He recognized several names on The Wall and quickly clarifies that he “really didn’t know them. We went over as replacements. It’s always a loss but it’s a far greater loss when it’s somebody who you lived with, slept with, trained with. I can imagine how much more grievous that would be.” He explains, as replacements, the men were sent to Vietnam in groups. They may have trained together but were dispersed among units that needed personnel with specific skills.

Caster was drafted into the Marine Corps (3rd Division, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines). At age 24, he was called the “Old Man.” He refers to his “very unique experience” over a three-month period in 1968. He graduated in February from National College of Chiropractic in Illinois. “I got a draft notice in March, and in April I was in the service.”

Like Geschwender, Caster was a replacement trained in fire support coordination. His training was “for coordinating and plotting fire missions for the artillery in relation to enemy troop movements and our troop movements.” In Vietnam, Caster was assigned to the Target Information Center.

He also knew men whose names are on The Wall. “I didn’t look them up. I was a replacement, so everybody I trained with was scattered throughout the whole country. I don’t know today even how many were killed or how many made it back.”

Caster was stationed at a combat base and says there were rocket attacks all the time. “You could hear them coming in, and then you would head for the trenches. When they go off, you hear the shrapnel going off through the hooches [huts]. Fortunately, I was not injured and got out OK.”

Geschwender also remembers the shrapnel. Once he was walking into a bunker when he heard a very distinctive noise. “It’s kind of like a whistle and a buzz. When you heard that, you were OK because that meant the rockets went over you,” he says. Inside the bunker, smoke and dust was in the air. “My nose was bleeding and I could hear a fire burning. I thought we took a direct hit.” Climbing out of the bunker, he fell forward into a trench. “Right where I had been standing was where that rocket had impacted. Shrapnel is hot and razor sharp, and I went down on it on all fours. Unbelievable the devastation from a little, old 120mm rocket.”

Arriving back at Lincoln Airport on May 1 and receiving heroes’ welcomes was quite different from their experiences of arriving in the United States from Vietnam. Moore—whose service ended in December 1967—remembers shortly after his homecoming: “I was in San Francisco. Outside a restaurant there was a bunch of hippies. I’m dressed in my Class A uniform, and there was a little confrontation. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.”

Geschwender remembers just trying to fit in after his service ended in August 1969. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t go back. You can’t erase the last two years of your life. I was always in fear that somebody would say, ‘Well, he just got back from Vietnam.’ I didn’t want anybody to know. You just wanted to try and blend back in.”

Caster flew to Chicago O’Hare in February 1970 and was met by his girlfriend. “I didn’t really have any bad experiences,” he says. “We picked up my bag, got in the car, and went home.”

It had been two years since Caster earned his chiropractic degree in 1968. “By the time I got things squared away and got my head straight, I decided I needed some refresher courses.” He was able to use the GI Bill education benefits and has been a chiropractor for 44 years.

Geschwender used the GI Bill for about three semesters of courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, although he didn’t earn a degree. In 1970, he obtained a real estate license and has been employed in real estate for 42 years.

Saying he always enjoyed drawing, Moore used the GI Bill at Central Community College in Hastings to become a draftsman. In 1984, he started his own company in Omaha—Moore and Associates PC—that specialized in the criminal justice field. He designed, for example, county jails, state prisons, and juvenile detention centers. Moore retired in 2014.

Caster, Geschwender, and Moore didn’t know each other during their active-duty years but they are best friends now. “We met riding,” Caster says. Geschwender provides details. “Rod and I were Harley riders. Two guys introduced us. Doc is my neighbor and chiropractor.” Caster rides a Yamaha and calls it a “YamaHarley.” “He’s got one that is just as good as a Harley but doesn’t cost as much,” Geschwender adds, laughing.

Each man pauses and reflects before answering if they had any regrets about serving in the military during the Vietnam War. “I’ve often said if I was to go back and do it again, if I could be with the same guys that I was with over there, I’d be honored to serve with them again,” Moore replies.

Geschwender then immediately says: “I totally agree. There were times I wished I was in college instead of Vietnam, but I’d do it tomorrow if I had to.”

Caster adds: “[Being] drafted into the Marine Corps was unheard of. In fact, we were one of the last draftees that the Marine Corps had. But, I wouldn’t give it up for nothing. I was proud to be in the Marines and serve my country.”

Moore concludes, “I took an oath when I went into the Army and there isn’t an expiration date on it.”

The Next Mission: Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers

There’s also no expiration date on the commitment Bill and Evonne Williams feel toward the military. The first sentence on the homepage at their Patriotic Productions website states, “We are dedicated to honoring our military and bringing back old-fashioned patriotism to Americans.” The Final Mission on May 1 only means they won’t be coordinating subsequent honor flights.

They will continue to honor the military by dedicating their attention, time, and fundraising efforts on the national Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers. Unveiling occurred at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 7. New York City will host the display on Nov. 11 for Veterans Day.

In September 2010, the Williamses read an article in the newspaper that described a father’s ongoing grief four years after his son, Sgt. Joshua Ford, had died in Iraq. The father, Lonnie Ford, was afraid his son had been forgotten. The article led the Williamses to think “we have to do something,” and the result was the creation of the nation’s first Remembering Our Fallen state memorial in Nebraska during November that year.

The display honors 87 Nebraskans who have died in the War on Terror since Sept. 11, 2001. Both military and personal photos are included in the memorial that has traveled across Nebraska since January 2011.

The Patriotic Productions website summarizes the idea behind Remembering Our Fallen: “to honor the memory of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to provide comfort to friends and family of the fallen, and to remind others of the tremendous cost paid by some.”

Shortly after completion of the Nebraska memorial, the Williamses expanded their efforts to coordinate other state memorials. “Now we have 19 state-specific memorials, including Nebraska, that travel around their state,” Evonne says.

Even before The Final Mission planes landed in Lincoln on May 1, the Williamses had been working on the Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers. “At this point, we haven’t determined to do more state memorials. The national one is so prominent, and it includes all the states, and it is so beautiful,” Evonne says.

That beauty includes 25 tribute towers featuring three double-sided banners with photos of the fallen. Created at Renze Display in Omaha, each of the banners is 10 feet high and 5 feet wide with 200 individuals represented on each tower. The memorial includes photos of more than 4,500 service members; upon completion, 40 tribute towers will display photos of more than 7,000. The entire display would fill an area the size of a basketball court. And, unlike the state memorials, the tribute towers can be kept outdoors because they can withstand inclement weather conditions.

“Eventually all of our nation’s fallen will be included. Right now we have about 65-70 percent of them. We are still trying to reach families and hoping that they will hear about it and contact us because it’s just hard to find them all,” Evonne says.

She elaborates about specifically designated towers: “We have a separate tribute tower for those who died stateside while serving. Training accidents, parachutes that didn’t deploy, whatever it might be.” Another tower is dedicating to those who had been deployed to the war zone, struggled with post-traumatic stress, and died from suicide after returning home. “Many struggled for years, and then all of a sudden, they just couldn’t do it anymore. Those are the hard ones. I just sit here with my head in my hands. It’s difficult.”

Recognizing the tears-of-happiness moments associated with the honor flights, the Williamses also have experienced tears-of-sadness moments with the Remembering Our Fallen state memorials and tribute towers. Referring to Evonne, Bill relates, “She spends hundreds and hundreds of hours looking at those young faces.”

Evonne talks about her moments of tears. “Every time I get discouraged or frustrated I think, ‘It could be our son.’” Bill and Evonne are the parents of four sons. One is on active duty in the Army. A second son served in the Army, and two served in the Marines.

Dismissing all the tears and amount of time spent on the honor flights, Remembering Our Fallen state memorials and tribute towers, there is a bottom line for the Williamses. “It’s the least we can do, and it’s an honor if we can spend our days here trying to honor these men and women who died for us,” Evonne says.

Citing Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies as examples, she notes how many veterans attend. “Where are the rest of us? It’s not the veterans’ job to thank the veterans. It’s the civilians’ job. By looking at these photos on the memorials, maybe it helps teach children an appreciation for country and our military. It’s important to know that our freedom comes at a very costly price.”

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This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.